With his entrancingly comic turn in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder," currently the No. 1 movie at the box office, Tom Cruise has critics raving and America talking – and this time it's not about the infamous couch-jumping incident.
Cruise's take on a profanity-loving movie executive is "the role of a lifetime," according to a Slate review.
"Who could have foreseen Tom Cruise nearly stealing the movie in a fat suit, a prosthetic nose, a skinhead wig and an Austin Powers-style mat of chest fur?" wrote Slate's Dana Stevens in her glowing critique of the film. "Cruise is always at his best when he's skewering some unpleasant aspect of his own persona; thus, the crazed motivational speaker he played in 'Magnolia' was a career high point, and the supremely crude Les Grossman is another."
But will it be enough to make up for Cruise's fall from the public's good graces? From couch-jumping on "Oprah" when he was unable to contain his love for Katie Holmes, to his devotion to Scientology to feuding with Brooke Shields over whether postpartum mothers should be allowed to take medication to ease symptoms of depression, Cruise has stirred up one controversy after another.
Will the buzz he's garnering for one small movie role be enough to turn it all around?
Image expert Evangelia Souris thinks so.
"It's a small part, but it's funny," said Souris, who runs Boston-based image management firm Optimum International. "If you're trying to improve your image, you want to get attention – but you want to stay in the realm of eliciting a positive reaction. For Tom, this role takes us back to what made him a superstar in the first place. It reminded us that he can act."
And that, she and other image consultants said, is a great start. He's following in the paths of other celebrities making headway in transforming their images, like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
"I think Tom's comeback isn't as 'Mission Impossible' as we're making it out to be," said Vinnie Potestivo, a partner at Classic Entertainment Group, a marketing and talent booking firm. "While I don't see his role in 'Tropic Thunder' as a character-changing event, I do see it as a step in the right direction."
But just showing off those acting chops won't be enough to turn Cruise's image around, according to some observers.
"The changes in the perception of Tom Cruise has nothing to do with his acting or the movies he was doing," said Henry Schafer, exectutive vice president of Marketing Evalutions Inc., the company that tracks Q scores, which measure the likeability quotient of public figures. "So positive onscreen roles may not help. It's got to be a combination of things. And it's going to take time."
In fact, said Schafer, Cruise's Q negative scores have increased 10 percent to 43 percent with women in the past two years, while they've held at 33 percent with men.
"That means 43 percent of women rate him only fair or poor, while only 16 percent rate him among their favorites," Schafer said. "So it's going to take some time."
PR guru Howard Bragman seconds this. "You can't go find Jesus over the weekend," he said, citing Lohan's multiple rehab visits and former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edward's claims that he's a changed man after he admitted having an affair. "There's no instant turnaround. You've got to accept that these things take time.