By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

At his best, Tom Cruise isn’t a bad actor, yet when he’s really cooking on screen — in, say, The Color of Money — it’s not his skill as a performer that we’re responding to. It’s his free-gliding confidence as a star, the easy delight he takes in his own charisma. That big, toothy grin is actually his least streamlined feature; what’s so winning about it is the spontaneity with which he lets it rip. When he smiles, he seems to be acknowledging — to the other characters, and to every female in the audience — that his sexiness is something he can’t control. It just comes beaming out of him.

Cruise is like a high school girl’s dream of a brash-but-sensitive jock, and as long as he’s playing hustlers or top guns or the selfish smoothie of Rain Man, he’s great fun to watch. But when this creamy-faced superstar tries to hunker down and be a ”serious actor,” he’s limited by the very quality that makes him so likable-namely, that he seems to have eased through life on silver wings, never touching anything that resembles human pain.

In Ron Howard’s glossily old-fashioned Far and Away , a transatlantic immigrant saga set at the turn of the century, Cruise plays Joseph Donelly, a young tenant farmer who escapes the cruel confines of his Irish village and journeys to America, lured by the promise of freedom and land. His unlikely partner, Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman), is an upper-crust Irish girl infatuated with all things ”modern”; she decides she’s had it up to her starched collar with life in the family mansion. (Funny how people in movies find it easy to give up that sort of thing.) The two run off together and land in Boston, where the feisty, impoverished Irish are the lowliest of all immigrants.

Penniless, they’re reduced to lodging in a whorehouse (since this is a Ron Howard movie, it’s a very friendly whorehouse — you almost never see any men). They find work in a poultry factory, and then Joseph, a born scrapper with a fearsome right hook, begins to earn money as a bare-knuckle fighter.

Cruise doesn’t do anything terribly wrong. His Irish accent is fine (if a bit too impeccably rounded), and he works hard to make the plainspoken Joseph seem humble and sweet, a modest kid who never backs down from what he believes in. Yet except for the boxing scenes, when he can come on like a strutting champion, Cruise has no edge, no inner fire. He lacks the passionate, volatile qualities that might have expanded the character into something more than a screenwriter’s concoction. Even Cruise’s muscles seem too smooth. With every sinew and curve sculpted in the gym, he scarcely resembles a poor farmer who owes his bulked-up physique to day labor. Machine-tooled and weightless — that’s Cruise in Far and Away. And that’s the movie as well.

Ron Howard’s breakthrough hit, Splash, was a blithe, funky comedy, romantic in a screw-loose way, but in the years since he has turned into an over-controlled Steven Spielberg wannabe. His movies — Cocoon, Willow, Backdraft — have become slick and grandiose. His ambition seems to be to repackage old Hollywood corn with high-tech visual panache.

In Far and Away, Howard spoon-feeds you the story, and almost all of it feels lifted from other movies. The Ireland sections might have been inspired by John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley — the characters practically have blarney coming out of their ears. In Boston, Howard evokes both the Charles Bronson melodrama Hard Times and, with Joseph and Shannon engaging in an hour’s worth of cute flirtation, the amorous gamesmanship of It Happened One Night. After a while, Joseph heads for Oklahoma, joining the great land rush of 1893. The film suddenly turns into a vintage Western. There’s a horse race that’s visually thrilling — the photography has a dazzling hyperclarity. Then again, you have to wonder about a director who fusses over every shot yet manages to make a 2-hour-and-20-minute movie without so much as a single colorful supporting role. One character, Joseph’s rival (Thomas Gibson), is an embarassment — he’s peggable as a stock villain the second you catch his Snidely Whiplash mustache and hear him spit out a pompous insult.

Far and Away isn’t without its moments. The Boston episodes give you a sense of the desperate, ragtag Irish struggling to pull themselves together into a community. And though Kidman is stuck in the cliché role of a ”free- spirited” rich girl, some of her urgency comes through. It was a nice touch, too, to delay the romantic fireworks until the end. The trouble is, the movie is all touches. Far and Away looks like an epic, but it lacks flavor and texture. It’s so predigested there’s nothing left to chew on. C

Far and Away

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 140 minutes
  • Ron Howard