In almost any other industry, when a product doesn't take off-especially when that product has been heavily marketed-the first assumption is that something is wrong with the product. Not in Hollywood. Though the $120 million Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz romantic action comedy (how's that for a genre), Knight and Day, opened on a Wednesday-ostensibly to build word of mouth heading into the weekend-it grossed only $20.5 million in its debut weekend. With such a high-profile bomb in the making, the explanations studio heads are offering for why it failed provides a quick lesson in the movie business' unparalleled tendency toward thickheadedness.
Partly, they think it's the public's fault for being too unsophisticated to appreciate Knight and Day's North by Northwest style premise. Partly they think they chose a bad opening date (apparently they should have guessed that Adam Sandler's latest phone-in project, Grown Ups, would be a mountain too high to surmount). But mostly they think that Cruise has so damaged his brand that he repels audiences.
While it may be true that Cruise is suffering from an image problem, he's the one person who shouldn't be hurt by Knight and Day's failure, but almost certainly will. The Oprah incident and the off-putting interview with Matt Lauer notwithstanding, few young actors today can arrest the screen with movie star magnetism the way Cruise can at 48. As rogue spy Roy Miller, he combines the best qualities he has always brought to the table. He's quick, confident, charming, and, yes, a little couch-jumping crazy. And if the rest of the movie lived up to his performance, no doubt buzz would have built.
You don't have to be an industry expert to see that the biggest problem with Knight and Day (rated PG-13 for language and mild violence) is that the filmmakers quit working before they'd turned a good premise into a good movie. When we first see Roy and June Havens (Cameron Diaz) collide in the Wichita airport and follow the beginnings of their romance-as Roy disables a plane full of enemies while June primps in the bathroom-it looks like we're in for a refreshingly loopy ride. Unfortunately, nothing that comes after lives up to the entertainment value of the first few scenes.
The fact that Cruise's character may be dangerous, has inscrutable motives, and behaves erratically poses no problem-the entire story is based on his personal appeal and CIA skills, enough to convince an average girl to leap off the grid with him and involve herself in high stakes espionage. The problem is with Diaz's character. June simply doesn't seem disappointed or bored enough with her life to engage in Roy's hijinks. Her character is already pretty independently minded. She runs a garage and rehabs classic cars for a living. She also broke off an engagement with a nice-guy fireman because she didn't want to settle for a marriage without sparks. In short, she has a sound, smart head on her shoulders. While it's easy to believe some women would chuck their humdrum, everyday lives to run off with a charismatic, possibly insane secret agent, we're given no plausible reason to believe this woman would.
Instead of reworking the script to give Diaz's character more motivation, director James Mangold and writer Patrick O'Neill get around it with a gag that is off the charts on the creep factor-Roy drugs June . . . repeatedly. He then carries her off to whatever exotic locations he chooses and even changes her clothes to fit their surroundings. Was there no woman working on this project to explain how profoundly disturbing this plot device is?
The downside for adult audiences who would like to see better versions of movies like Knight and Day is that studios will point to its failure as proof that the public isn't interested in sharp, funny thrillers that rely on strong characters and story rather than sex and violence to entertain.
Email Megan Basham