Hollywood celebrated the lackluster opening of "Mission: Impossible III" by dancing on Tom Cruise's grave. "There's a certain part of this town that loves to watch somebody self-destruct," said one film-industry exec, who, like others in the business, makes it a policy not to criticize anyone publicly. "People were rooting against that movie. They were rooting against Tom." Rooting against him so much that they may have overhyped his demise. Cruise has been the closest thing to a sure thing in Hollywood for almost two decades, and the $48 million opening weekend gross for "M:i:III" ($10 million below the opening for "M:i:II"), while disappointing, hardly qualifies as a flop.
But does it mean Cruise's star is starting to fall? And if so, are his Scientology-promoting, Katie Holmes-gushing, couch-jumping antics of the past year to blame? "That's the easiest thing to say, but I don't think it's all because Tom Cruise is a nut job," says one seasoned Hollywood veteran. It may be simply that the "Mission" franchise is meaningless to teenagers--the last installment was six years ago--and that, at 43, Cruise is getting too old to be cool. Others think the movie's weakness has little to do with Cruise. "There was no originality to that marketing campaign," says one top studio exec. "And it's a pretty dark film. It didn't look like much fun. Philip Seymour Hoffman screaming that he's going to kill Cruise's fiancée right in front of him? Why would any woman want to see that?"
Even if they did, it's hard for audiences to take you seriously when you've become a joke. "He recast his entire image almost overnight," says the Hollywood vet, "and recast himself in such a way that he had my 75-year-old mother sitting around the pool with her friends going, 'I don't like him anymore'." Lucky for Cruise, 75-year-olds aren't huge ticket buyers. It's also lucky that his odd behavior seems to have had zero impact on his foreign appeal. Cruise has always been a huge draw internationally, and "M:i:III" is no exception. In the media frenzy last week, it often went overlooked that the film took in a huge $70 million overseas.
Hollywood insiders are divided about how Cruise should manage his career from here. Some think he should evolve out of action-hero roles into dramatic films. Others think he's got a few more years of cinematic studliness in him, if he'll just pipe down about Scientology and stick to talking about movies. Some think it's too late. "It feels like the American people may be done with him," says one exec. "The mystery about him is gone." That's overstated. Cruise didn't become a billion-dollar brand by mystery or luck, and it'll take more than one mediocre opening to knock that king off the hill.