The dreamy opening sequence of "Vanilla Sky" shows a fearful Tom Cruise trying to get his bearings in an eerily deserted Times Square -- an urban jungle as desolate as the Manhattan streets he paced in 1999's overlong, overblown "Eyes Wide Shut". Uh-oh.
Shortly thereafter, Cruise's David Aames is the guest of honor at a birthday party whose glamour befits his station as the heir to a big-bucks publishing empire. The assembled well-wishers include one Steven Spielberg -- who, in real life, helmed last summer's overlong, overblown "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence". Not good.
The portents do not lie. "Vanilla Sky" is itself an overlong, overblown misfire that expends a capable cast, an occasionally brilliant director and some first-tier filmmaking techniques on schizophrenic, ill-considered folderol.
At first, it's merely trivial. Aames flits irresponsibly through a world of inherited affluence and casual sex, all but neglecting the business his father has bequeathed him. Why bother, when life holds such distractions as Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz), a spunky dancer/dental assistant who can match the jocular tycoon witty quip for witty quip? (Cruz's best line: "I don't have a mother/savior bone in my body." Yeah, I think Nicole and the kids have figured that one out by now.) Somebody needs to tell writer/director Cameron Crowe that his characters' customary gift for repartee is only accessible when they aren't also filthy rich and/or unspeakably good-looking.
Feeling like interlopers in Aames' life from the get-go, we're hard-pressed to fully sympathize when the playboy's part-time sex toy (Cameron Diaz) gets upset over her Latina competition and drives her car off a bridge at 80 mph with Aames in the passenger seat. She dies, but his fate is crueler: The crash leaves him horribly disfigured and skating on the edge of dementia. His condition worsens as the movie unspools, pulling us down into a pseudo-sci-fi, reality-vs.-fantasy morass that gets sillier the more seriously it takes itself.
The material is based on the 1997 Spanish thriller "Abre Los Ojos" (which also starred Cruz), and Crowe is totally out of his element with it. Applying his stylistic trademarks -- sun-swept cinematography, playful banter, lite-rock soundtrack -- to cosmic psychodrama makes no sense whatsoever. Messing up Cruise's cover-boy puss was clearly a key motivator, but to what avail? All we learn from the transformation is that a disfigured Tom Cruise looks a bit like the everyday Richard Belzer.
To set up the tragedy pre-crash, Cruise flashes his toothiest grin at just about every bit of stimuli (audio or visual) that comes across the screen. I still say this guy can act, but that argument gets harder to support every time he turns in another impression of a Jack-o-lantern.