Is this the end of the road for Tom?
He was once the biggest star in Hollywood, but Tom Cruise is in desperate need of a hit. Can he return to glory, asks Ed Power
Tom Cruise wants you to like him. There he is on the front of the new edition of Esquire magazine, flashing that blood-chilling grin and waggling the most terrifying eyebrows in showbusiness.
Inside, Tom's in uncharacteristic confessional mode -- speaking for the first time about his relationship with his absentee dad, he describes how they mended their differences whilst his father lay dying in hospital.
Squeezed back into the 'fat suit' he wore playing foul-mouthed studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, he's also been hamming it up with Jennifer Lopez on Dancing with the Stars.
He's even found time to cuddle up to the media, inviting journalists to a junket in Spain where he recreated motorbike stunts from his new movie, jokey spy romp Knight and Day.
Cruise isn't doing this because he's suddenly decided he wishes to be friends with the press or feels compelled to talk about his father.
He's making himself available because, for the first time in his 25-year career, the 48-year-old actor needs a hit -- and badly.
Coming off two successive flops -- Mission Impossible III and Valkyrie -- and damaging chatter about his personal life, the actor has realised, perhaps too late, that his A-list days may be at an end. And he's determined to do whatever it takes to reverse the decline.
The problem is, after 2005's couch-bouncing Oprah meltdown and his very public proselytising on behalf of Scientology (a glorified cult say critics), it could be too late.
Certainly, all of his shucking and shilling on behalf of Knight and Day, co-starring Cameron Diaz on uber-ditz autopilot, would appear to have been for nought: the movie flopped on its opening weekend in the US, finishing third behind the new Twilight film and Toy Story 3 and taking in a mere $3.8m (it opens here on August 6).
That doesn't make it a disappointment -- it makes it a car crash. One US newspaper referred to it as Flop Gun. You have to go back to 1986's Legend for a Cruise movie with a worse opening performance.
And it's not as if Knight and Day is shaping up to be an overlooked masterpiece either.
US critics have savaged it, singling out the lack of chemistry between Cruise and Diaz. "The source of this movie's energy is near-perpetual desperation," said the Wall Street Journal.
"I think the problem with Tom Cruise is that he simply can't do romantic roles anymore," Movieline.com editor Kyle Buchanan tells the Irish Independent.
"Because women don't want to see that after his couch-jumping behaviour. Even though Knight and Day is an action film, it still relies heavily on his chemistry with Cameron Diaz, and that's become a turn-off to women -- it's why they didn't show up."
The star's very visible status anxiety isn't doing much to enhance his marketability, according to industry observers.
"'While Tom clearly had fun with J Lo and loves the Grossman character, it did make me wonder whether we would have seen the old Tom Cruise -- back when he was the biggest star in Hollywood -- doing shtick like that? I don't think so," a Hollywood executive told a US newspaper (he declined to be named, fearing the Wrath of Tom).
"He's at a point where he realises he needs to do whatever it takes to keep himself in the public eye,'' the exec said. "It's to remind the public, 'Hey! I'm still here! I still look good!'''
For a major Cruise hit, you have to go back to 2005's War of the Worlds. And that was as much Steven Spielberg's movie as his.
Indeed, Spielberg is said to have been unhappy at how Cruise hijacked the promotional interviews for the film to talk about his religious beliefs.
By his next movie, Mission Impossible III, he was in full-on 'Crazy Tom' mode.
There was that notorious meltdown on Oprah Winfrey, culminating in Cruise hopping up and down, declaring his love for Holmes.
Not long afterwards, his relationship with Paramount Studio was ended by the company's boss Sumner Redstone.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the mogul explained why he severed ties with Cruise: "It's nothing to do with his acting ability, he's a terrific actor . . . But we don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot."
So desperate is he for a hit, Cruise is rumoured to be planning to return to the Grossman role in a stand-alone movie. Perhaps that's where the future lies for him -- in quirky parts parodying his days as Hollywood's pre-eminent alpha male.
"I think Cruise still has a chance if he sticks to action or if he does a really unexpected supporting role in the vein of Magnolia," says Buchanan.
"For the time being, he should stay away from anything romantic."
Still, not everyone thinks Cruise's future will be a story of diminishing returns.
"Tom Cruise just needs a bang-up script and a good director and he can be a top action star again. Knight and Day only did OK because it lacked a compelling plot," Bonnie Fuller, editor of gossip blog Hollywood life.com tells the Independent.
"But in terms of his overall career, I think he's already come back. He came back brilliantly by playing the foul-mouthed Hollywood producer, Les Grossman, in Tropic Thunder.
"When he reprised the character at the recent MTV Movie Awards, he made himself cool to a whole new generation. Now, he's been signed to do a new movie based on that character. As always, he's far more than just an action star. He's a star."