Tom Cruise rewatch: Shining from the sidelines in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder

·5 min read
Tom Cruise rewatch: Shining from the sidelines in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder

Ahead of this Friday's release of Top Gun: Maverick, our writers return to their favorite Tom Cruise movies, in appreciation of an on-screen persona that's evolved over decades.

People like to say that true movie stars  — or at least the vanishing few who can still wear that title in 2022 — essentially always play themselves on screen. And they're right of course, to a point: At a certain Mt. Rushmore level of fame, the X-factor presence of a star operating at full wattage can eclipse just about any role or franchise.

Which makes it feel like an almost transgressive thrill when someone like Tom Cruise shows up in project that is not billed, per se, as Tom Cruise movie. There are at least two great examples of that (though they'll probably never appear together on a double bill, unless it's wild-card night at a Cruise Completist festival). The first is Magnolia, the three-hour Paul Thomas Anderson opus released in 1999, in which the actor played a spectacularly toxic sex guru named Frank "T.J." Mackey; the second is his deft turn in the giddy 2008 film-industry farce Tropic Thunder as Les Grossman, a Hollywood mogul whose love languages are rage and Flo Rida.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Peter Sorel/New Line/Kobal/Shutterstock (5880263m) Tom Cruise Magnolia - 1999 Director: Paul Thomas Anderson New Line USA Scene Still
Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Peter Sorel/New Line/Kobal/Shutterstock (5880263m) Tom Cruise Magnolia - 1999 Director: Paul Thomas Anderson New Line USA Scene Still

Peter Sorel/New Line/Kobal/Shutterstock

As diametrically opposed as these two roles are in nearly everything from tone to hairline, they both tap into something intrinsically, ineffably Cruise: the actor's trademark intensity, a trait so inborn that "turned to 11" seems to be his default setting. (Even as a Ray-Banned prep schooler or a moonlighting bartender, his performances tend to vibrate at a frequency best described as code red; do you really think he'd sign up for any mission if it were just... medium possible?)

In the sprawling interconnected storylines of Magnolia, which take place largely over the course of a single day in Los Angeles, Mackey is a very specific kind of motivational speaker, a rabid cad in a half-ponytail selling snake-oil sexuality to a Marriott ballroom of single men eager to absorb his patented Seduce and Destroy pickup system. (Anderson was inspired, reportedly, by O.G. Game guy Ross Jeffries.) Entering triumphant to the crashing strains of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," T.J. is incel energy personified, screaming "Respect the cock! And taaaame the c---!" like both his life and his spotlight in a Tucker Carlson infomercial for manhood depended on it.

But of course, there's an ocean of hurt lurking beneath that glossy leather vest: Mackey's estranged power-player father (Jason Robards) abandoned the family decades ago, and left his teenage son to nurse his own mother through a terrible, fatal cancer. Now, T.J. will have his revenge on the half of the population he can't call "Daddy," and in a seething scene with a Black female reporter (April Grace), his aggressive exuberance devolves into real, messy fury. All those signature Tom charms — the swoop of hair, the can-do grin —  have been weaponized, metastasized.

Magnolia, if the Aimee Mann singalongs and raining frogs hadn't already tipped you off, is not a subtle movie. Its emotions run high and hot, and even Cruise eventually falls prey to the melodrama in a sobbing, furious bedside reunion with Robards. Still, he's electric in the part, a deeply damaged man so determined to master the universe — to penetrate it, if you will — that he hasn't truly looked in the mirror in years. The novelty in hearing a star of Cruise's toothy, clean-scrubbed magnitude scream the C-word wears off eventually; the pain and mania behind it stays.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dreamworks Llc/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885809bb) Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey Tropic Thunder - 2008 Director: Ben Stiller Dreamworks Llc USA Scene Still Comedy Tonnerre sous les Tropiques
Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dreamworks Llc/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885809bb) Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey Tropic Thunder - 2008 Director: Ben Stiller Dreamworks Llc USA Scene Still Comedy Tonnerre sous les Tropiques

Dreamworks Llc/Kobal/Shutterstock

It's also a little bit disconcerting how physically gorgeous he still is, hotel-samurai ponytail aside. But if you feel uncomfortable finding him attractive as a cross between Caligula and Tony Robbins, there's a cure for that: Thunder's Grossman, the bald, bespectacled studio chief with forearms the size of ham hocks and the core personality traits of an irate water buffalo. (He, too, is said to be based on a real-life character, in this case famed Die Hard producer Joel Silver.) While the cast of a fictional film-within-a-film that includes Ben Stiller (who also directed and cowrote the script) and Robert Downey Jr. in blackface (listen, kids, it was 2008) watches their shoot in a remote jungle go spectacularly awry, Les is the guy back in L.A. playing hardball.

Does he negotiate with terrorists, even when they're holding one of his biggest stars for ransom? Les doesn't play that. Will he shout down Matthew McConaughey's mercenary agent until he gets him to trade the life of his prized client for a G5? Well, if he must. And does he dance on the graves of his enemies? Just watch him Dougie. Grossman is the monologue king, blithely inured to other human beings and their petty needs; mouths are moving, but only money really makes a sound. The churn of bumper-sticker quotables aside ("I'm talking scorched earth, mother-f---er, I will massacre you"; "That's physics, it's inevitable"), he's just a joy to watch: a giant ball of id barrelling down the lens, without explanation or apology. In these roles, one of the most famously controlled figures in show business seems to find his own sticky sweet spot: Give Cruise chaos, and set him free.

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