November 8, 2007

These Things Matter: Bringing Comebacks Back

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Have any of you seen the trailer for Lions for Lambs? It’s one of the thousands of Iraq-themed movies coming out this fall. I can think of three reasons that you should check out the trailer: the first is because the movie looks really stupid. The second (related) reason is because of the ridiculous line “Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no? This is the quintessential yes-or-no question of our time.” You’ll be saying the line right along with me for weeks afterward.
Most relevantly, the third reason is because the film marks the attempted comeback, in image and dollars, of our beloved Tom Cruise. By now everyone is familiar with his fall: the couch, the Scientology, the cackle, the wedding, the Suri. Thanks to his controversial and often inexplicable behavior, two consecutive summer blockbuster movies of his have underperformed: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and the franchise flick Mission: Impossible III.
It has now been nearly 18 months since his last film. Tom needs a hit badly. Lions for Lambs is filled with big names and covers a big topic, but it is Cruise’s career status that is at the forefront. He recently signed on as the head of United Artists, what has been a near-defunct studio for almost 20 years. Much relies on the success of his new film. If it doesn’t go well, Cruise’s career might be in serious jeopardy, and his new stab at studio management may not even get off the ground.
But I actually think he might pull it off. Not because the movie is good or because he’s a shrewd manager, but because this is his “comeback” film. It seems to me that whenever anybody in the entertainment world is described as in their “comeback” effort, it is almost always a success. Even if the celebrity really never went away, fabricating some sort of comeback story is often clever career spin that can lead to even more money for the star.
There are numerous similar examples that make me think Cruise will see some upcoming success. In fact, there are so many stories of “legendary comebacks” that I will have to limit myself to these five recent examples:
5. Jay-Z, 2006-2007. This is a prototypical example, because of Jay-Z’s alleged “retirement.” When he announced that The Black Album would be his last, and held a retirement party/concert, pretty much nobody, be it fan or music insider, believed him. The album, Kingdom Come, sold very well but wasn’t even that good. His next release, American Gangster, might be considered a comeback from a comeback.
4. Jason Bateman, 2004. Bateman was a teenage star in the ’80s, appearing on lame sitcoms throughout the decade. (Although, some actually may consider It’s Your Move to be a classic.) Then he received no work for almost ten years. It was not until Arrested Development became a critical success that he was able to become relevant again, winning a Golden Globe and rejuvenating a nonexistent movie career.
3. Sexy, 2006. This is an excellent example because nobody even knew that sexy was gone in the first place. It took a true visionary like Justin Timberlake to realize that sexy had disappeared from the public consciousness. Thanks to his efforts, sexy has now returned, hopefully for good.
2. John Travolta, 1994. Everyone knows that Quentin Tarantino loves to cast washed-up actors in his films, like Pam Grier or David Carradine. But his casting of Travolta in Pulp Fiction made movie-goers remember that Travolta was the cheesiest actor around, and that they loved him for it. Pulp Fiction turned into a cinematic achievement, and it enabled Travolta to make another 15 years of crappy movies.
1. Mariah Carey, Too many times to count. Pretty much every Mariah Carey album since 1999 has been a comeback album. Notice that every Mariah Carey album since 1999 has also been a hit album. No coincidence here. Just because she’s a borderline lunatic doesn’t mean she can’t still continue pumping out smash records.
One final word: I exclude Britney Spears from this list, despite her recent release, because nobody can be considered a “success” in any way when they are denied access to seeing their kids because of their various drug addictions and erratic mental status. Get well, Britney.