I am not a big Tom Cruise fan, generally. Not necessarily because of his Festival of Crazy these past couple years, which he is now attempting to correct via the most overtly desperate charm offensive in memory, or as it is known officially, the "Valkyrie Press Tour." I did, of course, share in the schadenfreude over the incredible spectacle of self-sabotage that is Tom Cruise unleashed, but the original reason I was not that into him is that he is one of those actors who always makes the movie about him, so that it is impossible even for a moment to imagine that you are watching a character in a situation and not Tom Cruise Acting.
Cruise gained a lot of acclaim for his role in Tropic Thunder last year, and now having finally seen the movie I am somewhat surprised to report that his performance is actually good, even with the burden of incredible hype that accompanied the movie's release. He is very funny in it and a scene stealer in a movie full of scene stealers. What the performance isn't, though, is uncharacteristic. Some people suggest that Tom Cruise is playing against type here. I submit to you that he is so good in it because he is playing exactly his type. The only way in which he is playing against type is that in Tropic Thunder, he is ugly.
Tom Cruise is at his best when he is playing a cocky showoff (Jerry Maguire, Top Gun) or intense megalomaniac (Magnolia, Collateral). Tom Cruise is at his worst in the Mission: Impossible series, where he has no real character to portray, and his amazing stunts play not as Ethan Hunt's heroic feats but Tom Cruise, cocky showoff, showing off cockily how many stunts he is willing to perform himself. So Lev Grossman, Cruise's Tropic Thunder character, is really just another Tom Cruise intense megalomaniac, only ugly. The fact that people think this makes the character different just goes to show how much slack people will cut an asshole for being good-looking. Cruise could play the same character as himself, and audiences would think, "How charming!" Play the role with a fat gut, hairy hands, a beard, glasses and a bald cap, and they think, "What a grotesque monster!" What is the much hyped dance scene but Risky Business With an Ugly Guy? Of course Cruise is good at it.
Still, it's hilarious, to give the man his due, and benefits tremendously from Cruise's intensity and even his charisma. Personally, I think Tom Cruise is even better ugly--it brings him down to earth (even though on another level it's still a showoff-y ploy). And I always like it when he's playing an asshole on purpose instead of by accident.