by Ed Symkus

With 2001 rapidly coming to a close, it looked as if Memento was going to be the only film of the year to have audiences leaving at the end while scratching their heads and saying, "Whoa! That was pretty weird!"

And now here's Vanilla Sky, not nearly as strange in concept but certainly a strong contender for one of Hollywood's more bizarre efforts. For it to come from the mind of Cameron Crowe -- who wrote and directed the film -- makes it even more of an oddity than what he's best known for, Jerry Maguire, and last year's Almost Famous (which Crowe recently admitted was, for a short time, titled Vanilla Sky).

The film starts out in a relatively normal manner. It tells of a wealthy, happy-go-lucky pretty boy (Tom Cruise) who doesn't appreciate his fortunate life, whose only problem seems to be a stray gray hair from time to time that needs plucking. He's in the middle of a friend-sometimes-lover relationship with Cameron Diaz, has Jason Lee (terrific in the part) as a best pal, and lives in a slick, ritzy, gorgeous Manhattan apartment. Trouble -- still of the conventional sort -- starts brewing when he meets and is floored by Penelope Cruz at a birthday party he's throwing for himself. The situation turns into one of jealousy when Diaz, who wasn't invited, turns up, quickly realizing that there may soon be a new woman in the life of the man she suddenly now wants for herself.

This is neither an old nor a new story, really one that's a variation of other romances or maybe romantic triangles. The astute viewer, though, will know by this point in the movie that no, it isn't by any means normal, that the strangeness alluded to earlier has already flashed its wicked smile a couple of times.

An early scene -- just after the hair plucking -- has Cruise having an eerie experience in Times Square, in a creepy sequence done without special effects. (Crowe convinced city officials to give him Times Square for three hours on a Sunday morning, and the result is astonishing.)

Another jarring moment, just after Cruise is seen "working" at the high-powered publishing house he inherited, involves a drastic change of scene to a prison. Cruise, now wearing an eerie latex mask through which only his bloodshot eyes can be seen, is incarcerated, and is having an intense discussion with his therapist (Kurt Russell). Between Cruise's now shadowy presence and muffled voice, and Russell's talk of an unexplained murder, and the film's subsequent jumping back and forth between a happy past and an uncertain present (or future?), one must reasonably say to oneself, "What the hell is going on?"

The answer comes, but not for a while, and not before throwing swerve after swerve in the plot, each coming from a vacillating sense of what is reality and what is fantasy -- a question of when are people awake and when are they dreaming.

Crowe is taking a big gamble with this film, because at its core is a built-in confusion, one that eventually reaches mammoth proportions. It goes far beyond trying to figure out why the main character is in prison, although the mystery of the mask is revealed fairly quickly. For the squeamish, know that the face underneath is no longer pretty. Neither is it hideous, but it is very convincing.

And by the way, does anyone else but me think it's a little strange that Cruise has now worn masks in two films in a row (Eyes Wide Shut)?

But there's something else about Cruise, or maybe it's about Crowe's direction of him. He's always been a confident and competent actor, but this time out it's as if he's elevated himself, taking along the actors in duet scenes with him. Cruise opposite Lee, opposite Diaz (a frighteningly unpredictable character), opposite Russell, even opposite the once-again-disappointing Cruz -- these are all scenes with some greatness to them.

And the film's mystery never stops growing, finally dipping into the realm of science fiction, which is fine, because at that point, anything in the story could be possible, much of it sweat-inducing. There will be arguments about what the ending means and what has actually transpired, but that often makes experiencing a movie even more fun.

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