After sweating out his rock-journalism past in last year's Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe has chosen to remake Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar's Abre los Ojos, a film suggested to him by Cruise. The actor probably saw in it themes similar to those he and Crowe explored back in Jerry Maguire: the ruin and rebirth of the shallow man, the destruction and resurrection of an empty life built upon meaningless totems. If Abre los Ojos and Vanilla Sky are, as Crowe insisted last week during a press conference, "two brothers posing the same question from different directions," then Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire are fraternal twins -- characters often reminded that every passing minute offers a chance to turn one's superficial life around -- but their presentations are so disparate you'd never recognize them as kin.
Vanilla Sky almost takes place deep inside the Jerry Maguire's subconscious, where reality and make-believe are interchangeable. Nothing in Vanilla Sky is as it seems. At the beginning, David wakes up in a dream in which he, the cheerful narcissist, is the sole inhabitant of Manhattan Island. With Radiohead's haunting "Everything in Its Right Place" droning on the soundtrack, David zooms his Ferrari through a desolate, lit-up Times Square. It's his ultimate fantasy, perhaps, but also his greatest fear -- to be alone, without anyone to admire him. He needs people, their attention and affection. But just as easily does he discard them, flaunting one would-be lover and his best friend's date, Sofia (Penélope Cruz, star of the original), in front of a longtime fuck buddy, Julie (Cameron Diaz), during one of his star-studded soirees. Eventually, such casual disregard for Julie -- and his dear pal Brian (Jason Lee), whose novel David is financing -- leads to inevitable tragedy: Julie beckons David into her car, solely to plunge it off a bridge and into a brick wall, leaving him disfigured and her dead.
Or is she? And is David truly scarred, his once-beautiful visage a mass of ground flesh, or is the mutilation in his mind and not on his face? And does Sofia exist, or is she a figment of his imagination -- the one woman he might truly be able to love? The film is less a narrative than a puzzle to assemble and reassemble every few minutes: One minute the handsome David is discussing dreams with friends, the next he's behind a mask and sitting in a cell with McCabe (Kurt Russell), the psychiatrist who informs him he's been imprisoned on a murder charge. Vanilla Sky leaps willy-nilly through time and space; we're often not sure where David is or who he is -- a madman, maybe, or just a rich dude with blood on his hands. Cruise plays it just right: He's as exasperated as we are, always a second away from turning a smirk into a scream.
But only the blind could miss the inevitable ending, which is hinted at so often it's as though Crowe is afraid we'll stop caring if we're not being spoon-fed enough information, and that's Vanilla Sky's central flaw. It wants to be weird, but it's terrified of being too bizarre. Every time someone turns on a TV, there's but one thing on the screen, the inventor of something called Life Extension, a cryogenic project that offers "eternal life." Round about the time Benny, a once-frozen dog thawed out as proof of the great experiment, shows up on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, the audience is three steps ahead. We wait only for the revelation, which, by the time it arrives, feels predictable and warmed-over, no matter the ambition of fusing sci-fi with melodrama.
Though the film is said to slavishly mirror Amenábar's original (I've purposely avoided it, to keep from playing compare-and-contrast), Crowe imbues his take with his distinct sensibilities, from the rock-crit-approved mix-tape soundtrack (new R.E.M. and McCartney, old Dylan and Jeff Buckley) to the publishing-world setting (the man is forever working out his Jann Wenner demons). But he doesn't assume we're smart enough to keep pace. One astonishing shot of Cruise and Cruz echoes, verbatim, the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: It's a graceful, resonant evocation of a pop-culture past, a loving wink. But Crowe ruins the moment some 45 minutes later, when he explains the scene -- and everything else that's taken place, for that matter. He gives us no credit, no room for our own interpretations or imaginations. Crowe renders David's dream (and its accompanying nightmare) so literal we can't help but leave the theater feeling as though we've been lectured to, told how to feel and what to think. And for an audience, that's a bit of a nightmare.