Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Coasting along on Cruise-control

Watching Magnolia at the weekend for the first time in ages, reminded me of the genius of Paul Thomas Anderson, a fresh-faced 30 years old when he made it (this fact alone is enough to send me into a spiralling depression). It’s an astonishing and audacious film, and while the entire ensemble delivers award-worthy performances, it’s Tom Cruise who stands out in particular. As sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey, delivering his now-famous “Respect the cock and tame the cunt!” mantra (which has been sampled on numerous house music tracks) to a testosterone-fuelled conference room, it’s like watching a new, exciting version of the actor perform.

As impressive as this first sequence is, it’s the stripping away of his bloated and grotesquely self-assured façade, during an interview where his past life is unearthed, where Cruise really shows what he’s capable of as an actor. Anderson must have tread where others had previously failed (or feared) to do so, and talked to Cruise about bringing his own personal history of paternal estrangement to the character. It’s a theme throughout the film and one which occupies the latter part of his arc, when Mackey manages to do what Cruise couldn’t, and reach sort kind of closure with his dying father. What we also see in the interview scene is the kind of meltdown which Cruise the person (before the notorious ‘couch-hopping’ incident) had strenuously avoided in his own professional career, achieved mainly on his reliance of a meticulously guarded PR team. Subverting the public’s perceptions of him and free of his own self-enforced safety net, Cruise is mesmerising.

It’s not the only time he’s stretched himself as Born on the Fourth of July demonstrated ten years earlier. An attempt by Cruise to shed his poster boy image, he acquits himself extremely well in the role of paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovak, although his efforts are undermined somewhat by director Oliver Stone’s overly-sentimental direction. Frustratingly, Cruise’s follow-up role to Magnolia in the 2000 summer blockbuster Mission Impossible II saw him revert back to his usual narcissistic self - all slow-mo, ‘look at amazing me’ gestures, much to the detriment of the film.

Now pushing fifty, he’s not quite in the same box office position he was a decade earlier, with contributing factors to this being his ill-advised Scientology comments and the tabloids whisperings which followed. He was fine as the villain in Collateral, but this character still hinged on the Hollywood archetype we’ve seen numerous times before. It would be far more interesting if Cruise ditched the more obvious leading man roles and concentrated on acting in edgier, independently-minded productions. Ironically, nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for Magnolia, Cruise lost out to Michael Caine – an actor who has embraced growing older and delivered some fine character performances in the later stages of his career.

Having just watched a trailer for this summer’s Day and Knight, an action-romance which reunites him with his Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz, it looks as if Cruise is repeating the same stuff reminiscent of his earlier films. I think it’s time for him once again to work with the right director and jettison his ego-centric choice of roles (think more ‘Tropic’ than ‘Days of’) and the constraints they bring to his performance.

Looking back at his career, I’m sure he would like the term maverick to be used in explaining his range and not just referring to a past character he played.