On the eve of Valkyrie, revisiting Tom Cruise in Risky Business.

Reading and lounging and watching.
Dec. 22 2008 8:42 AM

Risky Business Indeed

Why the Tom Cruise bubble burst.

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When Joel tries to knuckle down on schoolwork and extracurriculars—he is a member of his school's Future Enterpriser's club—his adolescent cravings take over. Then his shame engages. In the film's funniest set piece, Joel imagines a tryst with a baby-sitter, only to have his superego invade the fantasy. Policemen, firemen, the girl's father, and his own mother surround the house. "Alright, Goodsen, we know you're in there," brays an officer via megaphone. "Joel, the house is surrounded. Do exactly as we say, and no one gets hurt. Get off the baby-sitter." His mom grabs the megaphone, and pleads, "Please, Joel, do what they say. Get off the baby-sitter." Thanks to the internal miswiring of a WASP upbringing, Joel can't both get satisfaction and defer gratification. And then he meets Lana.

Lana is a prostitute and the movie's love interest. As played by DeMornay, she is an extraordinary creation—all hooker, no heart of gold. Joel can only marvel at her lack of conscience. "It was great the way her mind worked," he tells us. "No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialties. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate material gratification. What a capitalist!" As she goes about fleecing him bald, Lana seizes Joel out of both his virginity and his ambivalent stupor. Here Brickman wanted to tell a story of a loss. The first time Joel talks to Lana, it's over the phone. He's alone in the rambling house, in the corner of his childhood room. Booking her services for later that night, he recedes slowly into a beanbag chair and slides a catcher's mask over his face. He desperately wants to stay a child of Little League and throw-furniture forever. Hearing the honey drip-drip of her voice, he wants Lana more.

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The common half-memory of Risky Business conjures up Cruise in asshole eyewear, pimping out his parents' suburban Colonial. But its distinctive pathos derives from its first half, from the nocturnal weirdscape emanating out of Joel's jumbled libido. As this Joel, Cruise allowed himself to be everything the publicity team has tried to convince us, for 25 years, he isn't: insecure, sexually confused, and as Brickman's camerawork takes no pains to hide, physically small.

We are meant to dislike—or at least, feel queasy—in the presence of the strutting superabundant charmer of the second half of the film, as he bursts forth from, and destroys, the chrysalis of Joel Goodsen. When Joel's parents go on vacation, he teams up with Lana to bring his horny friends together with her scheming colleagues, and in Joel's transformation (into a pimp, but also into Tom Cruise), we see the emergence of the '80s as the '80s. It's not just that Joel is no longer innocent; having been played by Lana, he learns how to play others. As they hand him their money, his friends still wear the jeans, the sweater, the loafers; Joel wears shades and the unconstructed jacket with the sleeves rolled up. The Man has been reborn, not as a gray flannel drone, but as a happy libertine.

At what cost? "May 5, 1966," reads a note to Joel from his grandmother, written on the day of his birth. "May your life be filled with happiness and joy." The note accompanies a savings bond, which Joel cashes to fund further misadventures with Lana. As Joel's friends discover the pleasures of Lana's colleagues, they too cash in their birthday bonds. ("You people have a lot of bonds," observes one of the hookers, dryly.) It is a perfectly calibrated act of rich-kid heedlessness but with the clever subtext that, during a time of runaway inflation (as the '70 were), it makes little sense to save for "the future." This is a word the script of Risky Business never loses a chance to deploy. The hookers say future and mean the shameless score. ("He's got such nice friends. Clean, polite … quick. I think there's a real future here.") The boys say future and mean some far off Valhalla to which they may never be invited. "I don't want to make a mistake," Joel whines to his friend Miles, his Faustian tempter, "and jeopardize my future!" "Joel, let me tell you something," replies Miles. "Every now and then say, 'What the fuck.' 'What the fuck' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future."

The '80s did for money what the '60s did for sex. They told a miraculously tempting lie about the curative powers of disinhibition. It took AIDS, feminism, and sociobiology a while to catch up to our illusions about free love. It has taken cronyism, speculation, and manic overleveraging a while to catch up to our illusions about free money. Now that Ponzi capitalism is collapsing in on itself, the perverse disjunction, of saying "what the fuck" and thereby securing your "future," is simply no longer tenable. Risky Business tried to be clear on the fate of the homely virtues once implied by the label "conservative." Thrift, patience, deferred gratification, self-reliance—all were about to be swept aside like a cobweb, lost as pitiably as Joel's sexual innocence. But in a final irony, the logic of "what the fuck" took over the production itself. Brickman and David Geffen, the executive producer, fought over the ending, with Brickman finally agreeing to let Joel's exploits win him, improbably, a place at Princeton. Is it any wonder we remember the Wayfarers and not the catcher's mask?

"I was just thinking," muses Lana in the film's penultimate scene, done up, Ralph Lauren-style, in the faked old money duds of new privilege, "Where we might be 10 years from now." "You know what," says Joel, totally secure in his own huckster charms, "I think we're both going to make it big." Over the course of the decade, Cruise would play a pool shark, a cocktail mixer, and, of course, a cocky flyboy in a time of peace. By Top Gun, an act of pure kitsch, Cruise was wholly unshadowed by Joel Goodsen, the prudish boy of the first half of Risky Business. As a full co-production of Reaganism, Cruise helped synthesize a new personality type: neat, clean, personable, and lacking in either adult probity or the stray edge, for fear of pricking the surface of a giant bubble. But to live within "what the fuck" is to die within "what the fuck." Jerry Maguire is Maverick's idea of an adult, just as von Stauffenberg is Jerry Maguire's idea of a serious acting role. Of course audiences are tempted to laugh. The Cruise persona, like a junk bond, was never meant to reach maturity.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.