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Are Tom Cruise and Matt Damon starting to switch places?

December 28, 2011 |  7:00 am

Matt Damon in "We Bought a Zoo."
Four years ago, you would had to have been as crazy as, well, Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch to bet against Matt Damon. The Massachusetts-born actor was coming off one of the biggest movies of the year in "The Bourne Ultimatum" and was part of the reason for the blockbuster success of "Ocean's 13."

Damon pretty much had his pick of directors, and in the years that followed, he made good on that capital. He reunited with Steven Soderbergh and Paul Greengrass, this time in less commercial films, and also did turns with Clint Eastwood, the Coen Bros. and Cameron Crowe.

After all those prestige bids, it's not a stretch to say that Damon has solidified his place as one of the best actors in his peer group. But even his most ardent supporters would have trouble saying he's a commercial draw. A-listers take nondescript movies and elevate them into hits. Damon seems to forever be stuck in a middling midrange. If that.

Many of his movies over the past four years have been disappointments — "Invictus," "Hereafter," "The Informant!" and "Green Zone." And now "We Bought a Zoo" has struggled in its early days of release. We won't even get into "Margaret."

Of this recent burst, Damon had only three movies that could be reasonably called successes — and two of those ( ("The Adjustment Bureau" and "Contagion") only modest ones. A third film, "True Grit," was a mega-hit, but for all the appeal of his dandyish LaBoeuf character, Damon seemed to be riding the coattails of Jeff Bridges and the Coens.

Contrast that with Cruise. Four years ago, he couldn't have been colder. He had acrimoniously split with Paramount, then got himself involved in some Nazi-eyepatch mockery while shooting "Valkyrie." He tried going his own way when he starred as a snaky politician in  "Lions for Lambs" (a domestic debacle), and was generally seen as taking himself way too seriously, even for a messiah-esque action star. 

A few years ago, a new "Mission: Impossible" wasn't even on the horizon — and when it was, people wondered why Cruise was feebly trying to reclaim past glory.

CruisegrBut in 2008, a cameo as a barking studio executive in "Tropic Thunder" showed he could actually be funny, something we, and maybe he, had forgotten. A Les Grossman moment flowered. So did, perhaps, the beginning of a Cruise comeback.

And despite a minor speed bump with "Knight & Day" in 2010, this past weekend, when Cruise returned to his big-budget action wheelhouse, the actor had a monster smash. "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" is now the biggest, and arguably the only, hit of the Christmas period.

How did Cruise do it? He seems at least slightly more willing to laugh at himself, or at least just laugh, while simultaneously doing the action thing that moviegoers embraced for years. (It of course helps if you channel the jumping into something more audience-friendly, like a leap off the Burj Khalifa.)

The contrast is partly about our taste, but it's also a function of actors and the cycles they go through in making their choices. Cruise already went through his passion phase and is now returning to the crowd-pleasers that made him a star. (A commercial-minded "Rock of Ages" is next.)

Damon, on the other hand, is still in the middle of his own auteur-friendly period, having walked away from the Jason Bourne character to try these trickier originals. (An HBO Liberace film is next.) That's a noble, Goslingian thing — and lord knows we'd hate to see any actor lose the ambition gene, especially one with his talent.

But Damon's box-office futility isn't only a function of risky choices. Some of these Damon films aren't dark dramas at all; his most recent release is supposed to be an uplifting, family-friendly film, with animals and cute kids. Yet that doesn't seem to be working either. We buy Damon as a mainstream action star, something most actors would kill for — and which he may need to sprinkle in every now and then if he wants to be a draw.

What we seem to be tired of, on the other hand, is the intense, even taciturn man-on-a-mission roles he seems to return to. If he wants to get back on his hot streak, Damon may want to go the Les Grossman route and do some comedy. And it would hardly be a stretch. As anyone who's seen Damon on a talk-show knows, the actor is genuinely funny. It's just easy to forget that amid the dour weight-of-the-world thing he seems to be doing so much of lately--a thing that, all too often, can remind of a certain recently cold actor.


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Photos: Matt Damon in "We Bought a Zoo." Credit: 20th Century Fox. Tom Cruise in "Tropic Thunder." Credit: Paramount Pictures