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'Knight' & Diaz

There really is something about the female lead in the new Tom Cruise film, starting with her OMG being LOL

Cameron Diaz is always game for a little action with her humor, as in her new movie with Tom Cruise, 'Knight and Day.' Cameron Diaz is always game for a little action with her humor, as in her new movie with Tom Cruise, "Knight and Day." (20th Century Fox)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 20, 2010

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A Cameron Diaz movie is always on somewhere. The other night it was “Vanilla Sky.’’ For reasons that remain unclear, Cameron Crowe had a Steven Spielberg-doing-Stanley Kubrick moment a decade ago and ruined a perfectly OK Spanish thriller. Diaz plays the crazy ex-girlfriend who drives Tom Cruise off a bridge. The crash messes up his face, meaning the rest of the movie is devoted to Cruise’s mangled vanity.

Diaz made the most of her assignment. (She’s better than Cruise.) But seriously psychotic is not her specialty. Loopy, zany, open to everything? Sure. Just not drive-your-man-off-a-bridge nuts. It’s true that once, in “Very Bad Things,’’ she got violent for having her wedding day ruined. But that was a black comedy.

“Knight and Day’’ opens Friday and gives her and Cruise another crack at each other. The new playing field appears to be level. It’s a comedy. He grins and runs and cracks some jokes. She gawks and laughs and waves her arms in ecstasy. That is the Diaz way. Confusion is her aphrodisiac. Cruise has hogged the movie’s forecasts: Is he all the way back? Does he still have it? What lessons about his backness can we learn from the trailer? Stuff like that. These are foolish questions. He is Tom Cruise. It’s a lifetime position.

Diaz has been Cameron Diaz since at least 1998, when she styled her hair with a little bit of Ben Stiller in “There’s Something About Mary.’’ Her ongoing evasion of a pink slip is inspiring. We have yet to grow completely tired of her. Who else offers what she does? Judy Holliday and Suzanne Somers at the same time. Diaz is ocean and summer and carbonated self-surprise. She turns 38 this August, but won’t she always seem as if she just got to Cancun, that the top is always down, that you — yes, you! — could make her laugh? That was the “something’’ about Mary, and it’s the something about Diaz: She doesn’t know she’s hot. She thinks she’s uncoordinated and untalented. This is the rare beauty who’s made a career out of being a dork.

Her career began as a model, and early in her movie acting — in “The Mask’’ or “She’s the One’’ — she had a model’s blankness. But then she had a magical moment. She almost stole a movie from Julia Roberts. In “My Best Friend’s Wedding,’’ Roberts backed her into bad karaoke so that Dermot Mulroney would hear Diaz sing and choose Roberts. Instead, America watched her maul “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’’ and even Roberts was a little smitten. It was our first look at Diaz’s ability to turn cluelessness and incompetence to her advantage. Her weapon was enthusiasm. The movies are full of girls who go OMG. But her OMG is LOL.

Detractors complain that her joy is chronic. Optimists know it’s catchy. The hope in sticking her with Cruise is scientific. Perhaps he’ll seem less heavy by association, less freighted. He is a star with baggage. She travels light. We know that she’s had a few boldface boyfriends, but what else do we really know?

Well, she’s canny. In “Being John Malkovich,’’ Diaz took a part playing an animal lover who falls out of love with John Cusack and becomes ornately obsessed with Catherine Keener. The more conventional movie would have put Diaz in Keener’s part. But Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze made Keener the thinking person’s bombshell and Diaz the neurotic basket case. Diaz was at home both in the intellectual jungle and in that brown fright wig. The movie affixes a soul to her shaken-up Diet Coke personality, without appearing to alter her sense of adventure. She was Tarzan, Cheetah, and Jane.

Let’s face it. Diaz is not the best actress, and she may never be “best actress.’’ But to her credit, she’s hasn’t tried to be. Which is how Sandra Bullock wound up hearing her name called at the Oscars last February: with the appearance of very little effort. Bullock worked a lot harder to seem nuts in “All About Steve’’ and was voted worst actress, too. It was a part Diaz could do in her sleep.

Despite the occasional detour into seriousness (“The Invisible Circus,’’ “In Her Shoes,’’ “My Sister’s Keeper,’’ “The Box’’), her business remains silliness. And even under the most intimidating circumstances, like, say, having Daniel Day-Lewis hurl cutlery and big acting at her in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,’’ Diaz’s emotional compass always seems to point beachward. Which is why she’s so naturally fun in “Charlie’s Angels,’’ where her physicality and sense of exaggeration are part of the joke.

Those two “Angels’’ movies raised another concern. She makes the most sense with other women. She is, as they say, a girl’s girl. And another actress who’s too “something’’ for a man — too happy, too wacky, too fit, too tall. Nothing interesting has ever happened between her and the men she’s worked with — not Leonardo DiCaprio or Keanu Reeves or Ashton Kutcher. I’d like to see her with Hugh Jackman or Jamie Foxx. In the meantime, there’s Cruise. It might work. But at this point, the men she’s best connected with — Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Keener — have been women.

Another night the Cameron Diaz movie that’s always on was “The Holiday.’’ That’s the Nancy Meyers comedy from 2006 where Diaz and Kate Winslet swap houses for Christmas. Winslet spends the film in a gigantic Los Angeles manse, putting up with Jack Black. Diaz goes to London and fools around with Jude Law. Aesthetically, this would appear to make sense: They’re both pretty.

But Law is so British here that it seems impossible that he’d find Diaz anything but appallingly American. Yet she charms him and not with her usual arsenal. Lying on her back, beside Law, she gazes up at a fake constellation and lets loose her deepish thoughts. Diaz’s adult adolescence won’t last forever. The risk when it fades is that she’ll have no adult-adult to turn to. That scene suggests that a current of womanliness runs through the party girl.

We keep waiting for Diaz to seem sad in a “Sex and the City 2’’ sort of way. But she refuses. Sex is so not the point of Cameron Diaz. While it lasts, the point is fun, and when has that been sad or old or desperate?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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