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Surreality Bites 

I'll be glad when 2001 is over if for any other reason that, hopefully, Hollywood will stop messing with my pea-size brain. What started out as harmless fun with the backwards-forwards narrative of the murder mystery Memento started to get kinky with the brilliant Mulholland Drive and then lapsed into a sea of pretentiousness with the sometimes-interesting A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Waking Life. All, in one way or another, played with our ideas of memory, dreams, reality and realness.

Which brings us to (please?) the final volume of the reality-bites collection for the spaced-out odyssey of 2001: Cameron Crowe's curious decision to direct Vanilla Sky, a remake of the 1997 Spanish psychological thriller/love story/navel-gazer, Open Your Eyes. Throughout his career, Crowe (a Frank Capra nut) has played it blissfully safe with a series of likeable stories told delightfully simply. Give Cameron a pop soundtrack and a hero/heroine we know we'll at least eventually like, and he's good to go. It was Cameron who gave us Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler, Jerry Maguire's Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous' William Miller. Yes, Cameron could even make a sports agent sweet, and we've loved him for it.

So why would he want to tackle a story about a narcissistic boy king who slips into a nightmare world just when it seems like he's reached his own little private Idaho? Open Your Eyes was dark, non-linear stuff, to say the least, but for some reason, Crowe listened when his Jerry Maguire star Tom Cruise bought the rights to the film and wanted him to direct. They even got Spanish sensation Penelope Cruz to reprise her role as The World's Most Incredible Girlfriend -- and what transpired afterwards between Cruise and Cruz we'll leave for the tabloids. Left alone, Open Your Eyes was trippy if unfulfilling material, where it's tough to figure out where reality ends, dreams begin, and nightmares take over. But with good guy Crowe taking over and his own notions of happiness at play, suffice to say that something definitely got lost in the translation.

Cruise brings his own baggage to the film. In what has seemed like his entire career, this talented actor has played one self-absorbed prick after another (usually with father "issues") -- Top Gun, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia -- who learns to find his inner good guy, usually with the help of a woman. So when he bought the rights to this one, well, let the eye-rolling begin. In Sky, we learn 30 minutes in that his character, David Aames, had a (now-dead) daddy who didn't love him.

The good news is that Cruise has become pretty good at playing the redeemed hot shot. The self-doubt that makes David hesitate even when he thinks he's in control of a given situation (usually involving women) is more than believable. He's more baffled than cocky, and it's to Cruise's credit that he can at least add a wrinkle by now.

Part of that befuddlement comes from being star-struck at the good fortune of meeting someone as wonderful as Cruz's Sofia. And Cruz doing this character the second time around may have finally found an American role that roughly approximates the charm she's exuded overseas. She gets more out of crooking her finger with that elfin smile than most actresses get out of an entire performance.

David spends much of the film trying to unite and reunite with Sofia, much to the chagrin of jealous best friend Brian (Jason Lee), who saw her first, and a sometime lover Julie (Cameron Diaz), who won't let go. When David agrees to one last fling, Julie goes stalker on him and drives them both off a bridge, leaving her dead and David horribly disfigured (well, as horribly as Tom Cruise can get) and off on his journey of self-discovery.

With Open Your Eyes, Spanish wunderkind Alejandro Amanabar (director of this year's near-brilliant gothic thriller The Others) gives us a man who is trapped inside his own dreams while searching for his soul. It was a nice idea that becomes so convoluted that the viewer loses all interest by the end when everything's supposed to be made clear. Head games in movies are fine, as long as you care about the players.

Crowe takes that flaw one step further when, at the point where everything is supposed to make sense, he injects a swirl of pop-culture imagery that could only come from his scrapbook. This, after spraying his scenes with buckshots of tunes that would've been fine in Almost Famous but here seem ill-fitting. (Laying Todd Rundgren's "Can We Still Be Friends" over a murder sequence, for example, rates as one clumsy attempt at irony.)

And so, in an attempt to "dumb things down," Crowe just makes a tenuous story even tougher to digest. But perhaps that's what happens when two narcissists reunite to make a movie about a narcissist: a head-shaker instead of a mind-bender.

click to enlarge Cruz on Cruise: Penelope falls for Tom in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, a weak remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes.
  • Cruz on Cruise: Penelope falls for Tom in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, a weak remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes.


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