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Vanilla Sky

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From the moment John Cusack serenades Ione Skye with a boom box hoisted over his head in 1989's Say Anything…, every Cameron Crowe movie has led to a single, transcendent scene in which the world drops away and two people connect straight on, unguarded and without distraction. As a precocious young rock journalist for Rolling Stone—an experience chronicled in last year's fine, semi-autobiographical Almost Famous—Crowe sought the same intimacy, digging for fresh responses behind a musician's practiced soundbites. Given his reputation for emotional directness, Crowe seemed an unlikely candidate to remake Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), a mind-bending existential thriller with barely a moment's distinction between reality and dreams. But in telling the convoluted story of a wealthy, shallow player who hits bottom and picks up the pieces of his life, Vanilla Sky essentially takes a winding, treacherous back route to Crowe's Jerry Maguire, with Tom Cruise again cast as the imploding ego. Though Vanilla Sky doesn't have anything close to the emotional resonance of the earlier film, it's a great leap forward in ambition—the sort of brash, daring, and intermittently exhilarating mess that studios stopped financing after the '70s. As always, Crowe speaks volumes through his impeccable song selection, opening with an eerie dream sequence set to the mesmerizing first track off Kid A by Radiohead, the pop poet of millennial anxiety. A dashing, narcissistic playboy coasting lazily off his father's magazine empire, Cruise wakes up in a posh Manhattan apartment with Cameron Diaz in his bed, but he's still haunted by a vague, gnawing sense of emptiness. Scanning for women at his birthday party, Cruise zeroes in on Penélope Cruz, undeterred by the niggling fact that she's dating his best friend, Jason Lee. After a revelatory evening with Cruz, he greets the next morning determined to get his act together, but he's intercepted by the pathologically jealous Diaz, who drives them both off a park bridge. Cruise comes to in a nightmarish situation: He's wearing a mask over his gnarled face, as a psychologist (Kurt Russell) interrogates him about a murder he may or may not have committed. Breaking from Amenábar's original design, which keeps viewers in a state of constant disorientation from beginning to end, Crowe doesn't really turn the screws until the dizzying final third, which is as chancy as anything to come out of Hollywood in the last few years. In some respects an avant-garde It's A Wonderful Life, Vanilla Sky reaches further than it can grasp, frequently stumbling over itself in a mad rush for greatness. The Cruise-Cruz pairing is the most crucial mistake: Cruise has turned on his image too often (and to greater effect) in Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia; Cruz, reprising her role in the Spanish-language Open Your Eyes, speaks her English lines as if she's learned them phonetically. Without a strong central relationship, all the inspiration comes directly from Crowe, who fleshes out every scene with exhilarating personal detail and newfound technical virtuosity. In the end, his remake may not be as sharp as the original, but it's far more compelling.