The dumbing-down of American culture isn’t limited to the movies, but regardless of what the leisure-time world throws at it, the motion picture business has staying power. It will even survive the appallingly uninteresting reviews by Richard Roeper, a man who hasn’t met a corny adjective or windblown adverb he doesn’t like. There are myriad quote whores in the business of criticism, but Roeper has managed to not only ruin and make less interesting a once enjoyable television show (Siskel & Ebert At The Movies), but he’s also managed to give quote whores a worse reputation than they already have. That sound you hear really is the late reviewer Gene Siskel spinning in his grave. As for Roeper’s avuncular partner, the Pulitzer Prize winning Roger Ebert, he should never be forgiven for foisting the flaccid, lackluster Roeper on us.

As for Ms. Cruz, the truth of the matter is this: whatever talent she possesses has long since dissipated (perhaps it was youthful allure), and she has managed to stultify a series of movies in which she has appeared. There are many who consider her beautiful, but it’s an odd beauty. She has a small head, which actually decreases her chances of having a screen career. People with big heads succeed in films better than those with small craniums. It’s an absolute fact. Cruz has made numerous movies in her native Spain and around the world (she’s been in more than 40 features), but it’s the American (or English-language) films in which she’s appeared that concern me. I first saw her in Woman On Top, an international hodge-podge about a woman from a Latin country who succeeds as a television chef in the U.S.A. It’s a weak comedy that never scored. There’s something about Cruz that doesn’t compel you to care about her. She’s a cipher on-screen. And it’s not just the language barrier, although at times it is tough to understand her when she is called upon to speak English.

Actor Billy Bob Thornton turned director for All The Pretty Horses, a little-seen screen version of Cormac McCarthy’s superb novel. He made a four-hour movie that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax ordered cut in half. The film was thrown into the marketplace the way raw meat is thrown into zoo cages for lions. The movie bombed, but was it Thornton’s fault? Or Weinstein’s? Perhaps actor Matt Damon wasn’t all that believable as a contemporary cowhand? In truth, he was not the problem. It was his love interest and she was played by Ms. Cruz. Their relationship was dead in the water. The same for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. As a love interest, Cruz was vacuous. She was forgettable in Blow. Ditto Vanilla Sky. She absolutely cannot act if she has to speak English. To quote Gertrude Stein, “there’s no there there.” She’s flat and lifeless. No sparks flew between her and her star, Tom Cruise. None of these movies were huge hits at the box office. If you saw the egregiously awful Gothika, you saw Cruz, but probably spent most of your time wondering what happened to Halle Berry’s career? Cruz simply made a bad movie worse. Blow, All The Pretty Horses, and Vanilla Sky were interesting features, but something dragged them down and that something is Penelope Cruz.

Now, it may seem churlish to be picking on Cruz, but there’s an important message here. Studio-made movies are no longer a genuinely populist entertainment. They are part and parcel of a larger corporate world. And movies are no longer an inexpensive entertainment, neither to make, nor to see. If you go to a movie and have a small drink and a small popcorn, you will be paying at least $15.00 per person. If you’re on a date and are picking up the tab, that’s $30.00, minimum. If you need to pay a babysitter, add a lot more. If you’re in a city where you have to pay for parking, add even more.

Why, then, should you be subjected to not only commercials for products you don’t watch commercials for in the comfort of your own living room (the remote control is the great zapping equalizer), but also to bad performances from people making an awful lot of money supposedly to entertain you? And always remember, more often than not, they’ve already been paid for the work they do, months before their muddled method acting antagonizes you at a movie theater.

I bring up Penelope Cruz because she is, to me, symbolic of one of the things that’s wrong with movies today. In a disposable society, she gives disposable line readings. She can’t act to save her life. Why is she cast? I’m not privy to the inner workings of production offices, but I do know that based on her box office track record, she is not the drawing power some people must think she is. Incredibly, she has four movies in post-production, two scheduled for release later this year, and two for 2006.

This all brings me to Cruz’s latest movie, the action adventure Sahara, based on the novel by Clive Cussler. I am a huge fan of Cussler’s books. The day they’re published, I buy them. Within a day or two, I’ve finished the novel. Cussler has different characters for different tasks depending on the style of adventure he’s writing. The Kurt Austin books are fun, but it’s the Dirk Pitt books that are Cussler’s bread and butter. In Sahara, oceanographer Pitt tracks a Civil War-era ironclad ship to the middle of the Sahara desert. What it’s doing there is the start of a thriller that brings in villains and chases and terrific characterizations. Actor Matthew McConaughey plays Pitt with a sassy bravado. His partner is the redoubtable Al Giordano, played by Steve Zahn, a good actor, but nothing like who the character Giordano really is or should look like. William H. Macy is Admiral Sandecker, the man who runs Pitt’s operations. Macy, a great actor, is also nothing like Sandecker’s image.

The book has been Hollywoodized, but not in a good way. The action sequences are fun, albeit endless. They keep on coming. The movie doesn’t quite capture the essence of Cussler’s love of the sea and his understanding of what makes a fantasy adventure exciting. It is generally entertaining, just no great shakes. Sahara doesn’t go to the next level. It doesn’t enhance the book, it reduces its cleverness and energy. It’s directed by Breck Eisner with an eye to speed and flash. The true great negative in all of this is Penelope Cruz as a doctor researching a deadly disease in Africa. Her character and McConaughey’s Pitt soon have romantic leanings, but you just don’t care. It’s a given regarding adventure movies since films began, that when the “girl” shows up, it’s time to run out for more popcorn.

When the thoroughly uninteresting and unbelievable Cruz shows up, you want to run out of the theater. Is it possible for one actress to ruin a movie? If it involves Penelope Cruz, the answer is yes.

There are a lot of untalented people in films and few of them have real careers once the initial bloom is off their youthful rose. If you truly believe that Sarah Michelle Gellar, Tara Reid, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Matthew Lillard, James Van Der Beek, or Freddie Prinze, Jr. have futures in the screen arts, you haven’t been going to the movies lately. There are plenty of attractive younger actors and actresses eagerly lining up to take their places. Few will be talented, but with the value of youthful beauty at an all-time high in a culture obsessed with never aging, they’ll find work and folks like Gellar, Hewitt, and Lillard, et. al., will be out the door.