The £63m flop: Or why the media is on a mission to bury Tom Cruise

His latest film is making money. But critics have decided that his devotion to Scientology is alienating fans. By Andrew Gumbel
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Variety, the entertainment industry bible, declared right after last weekend's opening box-office figures were posted that audiences had grown "weary of Tom Cruise's pervasive media presence, from his chair-hopping antics on the Oprah show to his ongoing advocacy for Scientology".

The New York Times wondered "if the real mission isn't the search for the damsel in distress or the hunt for the supervillain, but the resurrection of a screen attraction who has, of late, seemed a bit of a freak".

The screenwriter and director Nora Ephron went even further, publicly anointing Cruise "the new Michael Jackson, a weirdo ... a poster-boy for career immolation, a bizarre case of arrested development".

All this might have made sense if M:i:III had been a flop along the lines of, say, The Island, last year's non-blockbuster. But the film took in $120m (£63m) at the box-office worldwide, including $47m in the United States. Granted, the US figure was lower than Paramount Studios had been hoping, given the vast production and publicity budget for the movie and its exceptionally wide opening on more than 4,000 screens from coast to coast.

But the latest instalment in the adventures of Ethan Hunt and his team of ultra-secret agents left the multiplexes anything but empty. It also did roaring business in Asia. The prospects are far from shabby for this weekend, too, since the only competition in the US is Wolfgang Petersen's remake of The Poseidon Adventure, which has all but been declared dead on arrival. M:i:III's reviews were pretty good, all things considered, earning praise for both the action sequences and the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the chief villain of the piece. So Paramount executives are not alone in thinking they will reap plentiful further rewards before consigning the film to DVD.

The question then arises: why is the received wisdom so wrong? The problem, of course, is not with the film as much as with perceptions of Tom Cruise. There's no arguing that he has made a spectacle of himself over the past year - starting with his ludicrously over-dramatised courtship of Katie Holmes, all the way up to the birth of their daughter last month.

He allowed his adherence to Scientology to alienate both his fan base and the usually fawning news media, which were aghast at his dismissals of psychiatric medicine and a very personal attack on Brooke Shields, who had publicly discussed her post-natal depression.

It doesn't seem unreasonable, then, to conclude that the critics and entertainment writers were almost willing him to fail. USA Today even commissioned a Gallup poll to gauge public opinion of Cruise, as though he were a politician running for office. In response, a clutch of Cruise's powerful Hollywood friends - the chiefs of Paramount and Universal, and action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer - came out to express support. "If you do $118m in a three-day period around the world, you're to be congratulated," Paramount chairman Brad Grey argued.

The moguls have reason to be a little unnerved by the wave of anti-Cruise sentiment. Male leads are unusually thin on the ground these days, especially ones who can "open" a big-budget extravaganza on the strength of their name alone. Cruise has been a reliable member of the A-list for a long time, and they all desperately want to keep him there.

The New York Times reviewer, Manohla Dargis, had the canniest piece of advice. "Once upon a Hollywood time," she wrote, "the studios carefully protected their stars from the press and the public. Now the impossible mission, it seems, is protecting them from themselves."