One of the best things about 1983’s Risky Business is that the world doesn’t really know who Tom Cruise is yet. He’s good-looking in a boy-next-door kind of way, and he’s got charm and charisma. But Tom Cruise: Movie Star hasn’t arrived yet, and it makes Risky Business a fascinating viewing experience in 2018. We’re so used to seeing Tom Cruise as a superman, even in his dramatic roles where the dramatic impact is as big as his persona, that his turn as teenager Joel Goodson is a little jarring. He’s a guy that can’t really get anyone to do what he wants, and has to suffer some tough lessons because he’s not a tough guy. Maverick in Top Gun paved the way for the Tom Cruise we know, but Joel offers a glimpse at the Cruise that might have been.
For those unfamiliar with Risky Business, Joel Goodson is a prototypical middle-American teenage boy (emphasis on the boy). He’s obsessed with sex and getting into a good college. He’s following all the rules, but he’s also motivated by his libido. For Joel, he’s a boy who wants to become a man, and the way to do that is through sex and money (a good college serving as a stepping stone on the way to financial success). He hires a hooker, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), and sleeps with her. When he can’t pay her the $300 for her services, she steals a valuable glass egg. Eventually, Joel’s misadventures have him running a brothel out of his home and contending with Guido (Joe Pantoliano), Lana’s killer pimp.
Risky Business is both a great and terrible fantasy of the American white, male, heterosexual teenager. Although some have cited Risky Business as satire, it seems like writer-director Paul Brickman is playing it much straighter than that, diving more into fantasy and wish fulfillment for his lead character. It’s a movie that pokes fun at Joel, but never questions his desires or values. When he’s finally running a brothel out of his home, it’s not treated as a questionable or despicable way to profit off women having sex with teenagers. It’s treated as wild, fun, and Joel finally learning to say “What the fuck,” with the only real consequence being Guido stealing all of Joel’s stuff (which Guido then sells back to Joel). The worst thing that happens to Joel in the end is that his mother is disappointed that her glass egg gets a crack in it. Joel still gets to go to an Ivy League college and he got to have sex with a gorgeous woman. Sex and money wins, and Joel is now a “man.”
Where the movie gets its humanity is from Cruise, who never (whether intentionally or unintentionally) finds the machismo that would make Joel repulsive. For Cruise, Joel is a kid who’s constantly out of depth. Cruise was only 21 when Risky Business was released, practically a kid himself, but with Joel, he always knows to play the character at a disadvantage. Joel is someone who gets steamrolled time and again, and the movie isn’t really about him learning to stand up for himself. On the one hand, it kind of makes for an uninteresting journey since Joel is pretty much the same person at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end except he has some “cool” experiences under his belt. But there’s not a lot of daylight between the Joel who lets his friend come over and use his house for sex and the Joel who is forking over money to Guido so he can buy back his family’s possessions.
When I say that the meekness of Joel contrasts wildly against the rest of Cruise’s career, I don’t mean to imply that he doesn’t have range. On the contrary, Cruise has shown great dramatic ability in his career, and it’s something I wish he would return to rather than the action daredevil he’s been playing since 2010. But if you look at the overview of Cruise’s career, he usually plays confident, assured characters. That confidence may cover some hidden pain like in Magnolia or Minority Report, but he usually plays a character who knows what he’s doing or he’ll learn to do. Even when playing an outright coward like in Edge of Tomorrow, he eventually becomes a total badass. A Tom Cruise character is usually playing from a position of strength.
By comparison, Joel never has the advantage. From the start of the movie to the finish, everyone pretty much walks all over him. His friend Miles (Curtis Armstrong) gives him a big song and dance about saying “What the fuck,” to life, and when Joel finally does take a chance, it backfires wildly on him. Even when Joel is at his most “powerful” and running the brothel (which, again, has not aged well at all), he’s desperately trying to get money because he ruined his dad’s Porsche. Joel spends an entire movie just trying to break even, and gets ahead mostly from luck and because he got the college admissions guy laid.
Perhaps Tom Cruise could never consistently play the loser because it’s just not in his DNA. He’s too good-looking, he’s too charismatic, and he’s too charming. You don’t stay an A-list star for over thirty years by accident, and while part of that goes to Cruise’s work ethic, it also goes to people wanting to see him play certain kinds of characters. Perhaps as Cruise ages out of his insane stunt work and action films, he’ll return to a character like Joel. The question will be whether or not audiences will again be able to buy him as a guy who can’t catch a break.