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.
Still, Cruise should be able to increase his likeability, said Bragman, who has managed crises for celeb clients like Monica Lewinsky at his Los Angeles-based firm, Fifteen Minutes.
"A little humor goes a long way," Bragman said. "The ability to laugh at yourself is key. ... The ability to wink and say, 'Yeah, I get it. I'm in on the joke,' is very important."
A prime example, he said, was Paris Hilton's "smart, funny response" to an ad run by Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, in which he used her image to take a swipe at his likely Democratic opponent Barack Obama as a vapid celebrity.
Hilton responded with a video on FunnyOrDie.com in which she said the McCain ad had inspired her to join the presidential race, and then went on to lay out some of her campaign platforms -- all the while sunbathing in a bikini.
"The thing about Paris is that she doesn't pretend to be a Rhodes Scholar or adopt children in need from foreign countries," Bragman said. "She knows her brand and she knows how to work it."
By doing the video, Hilton has made herself look smarter than the average blonde, Souris said.
"She didn't go ranting on her blog and she wasn't catty about it, which would have been her old MO," the image management consultant said. "She was very funny with it, and it made her seem clever."
So what's an A-lister to do?
"Tom got caught doing the one thing celebrities aren't supposed to do, which is being human," Potestivo said. "We can all relate to a good joke and a hard laugh, but it's next to impossible to relate to a celebrity whose net worth is well into the hundreds of millions. He's an example of an actor whose celebrity got larger than life, and no matter what move he made next, he was never going to live up to our expectation. Tom fell in love, and unfortunately chose to do so publicly. That being said, I think we need to see Tom more as a human, more as a father, more as a husband, more as an obtainable human being, much more so than the top of the Scientology chain."
"The thing with celebrities is that the public puts them on this pedestal, and then takes great pleasure in knocking them down," Potestivo said.
He points to Britney Spears as a classic example -- at the top of her game five years ago, she crumbled following her divorce from Kevin Federline in 2006. Now Spears is cleaning up her act by focusing on recording her next album and seemly surprisingly lucid during TV appearances like her guest turn on "How I Met Your Mother" and recent MTV VMA promo spots.
"But she needs to have a smash single again to really cement her return to the spotlight in a positive way," Potestivo said. "We need to see her doing what she does best, and that's playing the pop star."
In the meantime, Bragman said, Spears has wisely handed over custody of her sons to Federline, cleaned out her entourage and turned over management of her affairs to her father.
"It makes her seem more responsible, which is exactly what she needs at this stage," he said. "Anytime she looks normal, she comes off as a winner these days."
One celeb who's taking her time is Lindsay Lohan, said Potestivo.
"Part of the reason Lindsay's piqued our interest again is that bit of mystery with the whole 'is she or isn't she' thing with Samantha Ronson," Potestivo said. "We're so saturated with celebrity gossip that the little hint of mystery there intrigues us."
Plus, he added, her upcoming turn on the ABC series "Ugly Betty" will help.
"'Ugly Betty' will plant Lindsay firmly back into 'Mean Girls' territory – and that is what she does best," Potestivo said. "She really knows how to play funny, and this will remind us of that."
Perhaps the final turnaround could come from playing up the positive – which is what both Lohan and Cruise should be doing once they've got some positive buzz going, the image experts said.
"They need to reemerge with a new image by aligning themselves with the right projects and people – career-wise and otherwise," Souris said. "For Tom, that means getting away from the Scientology thing and maybe doing some charity work. Look at Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They started out as the homewreckers, but now they've overcome the negative. Now they're known as the do-gooders. So it can be done."