Presumably Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise have some admiration for “Abre Los Ojos,” the 1998 Spanish thriller from Alejandro Amenabar (who later went on to fashion “The Others”); why else would they have chosen to do an English-language remake? “Vanilla Sky,” however, shows that respect for one’s source material isn’t enough. It’s a misbegotten venture that transforms a flawed but intriguing original into an elephantine, pretentious mess. Amenabar’s picture was muddled and frustrating, too, but at least it had invention on its side. Crowe’s film manages to be–apart from its American transpositions–little more than a slavish copy, lacking the earlier work’s sense of discovery. All that’s left is the murkiness and obscurity.
Basically the picture is yet another illusion-vs.-reality scenario decked out in the trappings of a mystery. But “The Matrix” it’s certainly not. Cruise plays David Aames, a hotshot publisher (left his empire by a distant father) who’s a big-time ladies’ man. Currently he’s bedding Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a sultry blonde. Julie, however, has a possessive streak that takes a maniacal turn when David is smitten with Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz, who repeats her role from Amenabar’s version), a hotty brought to his birthday party by best pal Brian Shelby (Jason Lee). Julie deliberately crashes the car she’s driving David around New York City in, leaving herself dead and Aames horribly disfigured. At least, that might be so; in other scenes, David, jailed and hidden behind a latex mask, is questioned by a criminal psychologist (Kurt Russell) about accusations that he’s murdered Julie. Then we have sequences detailing David’s attempts to win back Sofia despite his altered appearance, and others in which he tries, with the help of an over-the-hill attorney (Timothy Spall) to fend off board members’ efforts to steal his business. To complicate matters further, Julie shows up alive and claims to be Sofia. By the time this happens, viewers are likely to be so confused and frustrated that they’ll have given up completely. But never fear: an extremely tedious explanation for everything is tacked on at the end, featuring the unflappable Noah Taylor delivering reams of ex post facto exposition, that proves as silly as it is predictable. It constitutes a twist that’s meant to be mind-bending, but the denouement only proves that you can bend a narrative only so far before it breaks. (And the key to everything has been telegraphed periodically in the earlier reels of the film, so the outcome probably won’t come as a great surprise, though it will doubtlessly be a grave disappointment.)
Crowe doesn’t add much to this convoluted brew. He does insert a lot of his patented pop culture references, but for the most part he directs with a flat, heavy hand. It’s not surprising that most of the performers suffer the consequences. Cruise seems positively desperate at Aames, resorting to hysterical patches that are the thespian equivalent of purple prose (watch for a scene in which he’s talking to his surgical team for the nadir). About all that Cruz does is pout and smile, and she still seems to be reciting her lines phonetically–she comes across, heaven help us, sounding vaguely like a dark-haired Charo. Diaz works very hard, alternating between coquettish and sweet, but to very little effect, while Russell looks understandably bewildered; and the increasingly puffy Spall seems to be having even less fun than he did in “Rock Star.” The one bright spot is Lee, who, as usual, is an oasis of calm bemusement in the midst of chaos.
Audiences probably haven’t been treated to a more peculiar big-studio Christmas release since Herbert Ross’ “Pennies from Heaven” back in 1981; but while that picture was a remarkable oddity deceptively marketed as a jolly Steve Martin comedy, this is an opaque, tedious mistake masquerading as a star vehicle. In a way you have to admire Cruise’s chutzpah in tackling it so soon after “Eyes Wide Shut,” a masterpiece which the mass audience wrongly rejected as impenetrable. Unfortunately, Crowe is no Kubrick, and in the present instance Tom’s risk-taking has turned out badly. This is one bleak, dreary “Sky,” and in confronting it one would be well advised to reverse the instruction contained in the title of its predecessor. Don’t open your eyes, close them.