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Thanks for staying low-key, Tom Cruise

I had not thought about Tom Cruise in a long time.I realized that when I saw the TV commercial for “Knight & Day,” his new action comedy, which co-stars Cameron Diaz. The first thing that entered my mind was, “Oh look. That’s Tom Cruise. He still exists.” My second thought was, “He went away for a while. Thanks for going away for a while, Tom Cruise.”And then I did something that I u
/ Source: TODAY contributor

I had not thought about Tom Cruise in a long time.

I realized that when I saw the TV commercial for “Knight & Day,” his new action comedy, which co-stars Cameron Diaz. The first thing that entered my mind was, “Oh look. That’s Tom Cruise. He still exists.” My second thought was, “He went away for a while. Thanks for going away for a while, Tom Cruise.”

And then I did something that I usually spend zero minutes a day doing: I thought about how life has been without the media shoving him in my face. How peaceful. Because every time they present his grinning-too-hard mug on camera, I feel like, as a person in the media myself, I’m supposed to form an opinion about what I’m being sold. And it soured me there for a bit. Don’t lie to yourself either. You were feeling it too, even if, back in the day, you were one of those ’80s teens with a “Top Gun” poster in your bedroom.

But now my personal e-meter seems to have tipped back in Tom Cruise’s favor. Sort of. Here’s why:

Less Katie in the checkout line

There’s been a significant decline in screaming supermarket tabloid headlines regarding Katie Holmes and her alleged misery. It was guilt-inspiring, standing in line with a gallon of milk wondering, “Am I doing enough to liberate Katie Holmes from that hell on earth, that torture dungeon of a mansion with tons of servants? She seems so sad, having to shop with Posh Spice like that, being all rich and unhappy.”

More Suri in the checkout line

There’s been a significant increase in screaming supermarket tabloid headlines regarding the objectively measured adorability and best-dressed-toddler status of Suri Cruise. Those are much more pleasing to look at while waiting for a price check, way less stressful than having to think about unsubstantiated reports of unhappy marriages. If Suri’s publicist is smart, then the top agenda items will always be a continued stream of daily, extremely cute thousand-dollar outfits and gleeful play-dates with Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.

Tom’s toned down the fake charm

He’s calmed down in public. Gone, for now, are the moments of long and disconcertingly loud laughter, aggressively tactical and obviously fake charm offensives, all those reports of saving people’s lives, bad-mouthing other celebrity parents and petulant morning show interviews. Personally, I like it when celebrities misbehave. It’s often more entertaining than their films and it makes the rest of us less unhappy about not being movie stars ourselves. But when that sort of thing is coupled with a massive superior, I-know-better-than-you chip on the shoulder, it stops feeling groovy quickly.

He’s gone silent on Scientology

That idiosyncratic religious sect he likes so much appears to be a hand of cards he’s happy to resume playing very close to his chest. This is pretty much the smartest move Cruise could make, even smarter than being nice to Brooke Shields. Outside of Los Angeles, Scientology is neither controversial nor upsetting. It just baffles people. And the more you try to explain it the deeper the confusion-hole you dig. All you have to say is that it makes you happy and helps you be a nicer person. Say it enough times and most people — because, really, who has time to sit around worrying about it? — will believe that.

Time to remember the good roles

Career-wise his mini vacation from the big screen has allowed me to forget that, most of the time, his presence in a huge Hollywood movie means I’ll be dosed — involuntarily, since it’s my job to watch actors act — with another performance where he plays a shinier, grander, more heroic version of himself. And that’s always kind of a bore. So the me-time he’s taken lately allows audiences to remember the good stuff. For example, I prefer to think of Cruise as the awesome bad guy of “Collateral” than to remembering anything that took place in the yawning collective vacuum that is the “Mission Impossible” films. You may enjoy re-living key scenes from “All The Right Moves.” It’s a personalized scenario.

Les is more

He’s stretching a bit, thanks to balding, obnoxious, chunky Les Grossman, the fake studio executive. Taking that comedic turn in full-disguise makeup in “Tropic Thunder” has proven to be a tentative ticket back to public affection. And Cruise's recent Grossman-dressed dance with Jennifer Lopez on the MTV Movie Awards showed that he’s willing to ingratiate himself to young audiences that have no recent cultural points of reference for him besides, well, “Tropic Thunder.” Not sure we need a movie full of this guy, but some Les Grossman-like person apparently gave it it the green light, providing lots of inside laughs for dozens of Les Grossman types. For now, though, the hybrid action-hero/comedy approach seems to be just the right amount of striving for change.

He’s been smart about directors

He hasn’t given in to the temptation to badly direct himself or to demand malleable hack directors he can run roughshod over. He may not sign on to the next Claire Denis or Gaspar Noe movie but he still works with major filmmakers who have their own strong points of view. Not many actors would allow Stanley Kubrick to keep them locked down in England for a full year and direct them into chilly, unsympathetic performances. Cruise did. In the long run, this sort of thing will keep him on the good side of cultural relevance.

Kudos on the co-star

Cameron Diaz. Seriously, who doesn’t like her?

Dave White is a film critic for Movies.com