Much like "What Dreams May Come" and "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" - a combination of various successful players/styles has resulted in a nice looking art house-look big budget mess. Coming off a very entertaining and satisfying rock tribute with the superb "Almost Famous", Crowe teams up again with Tom Cruise for the first time since the watchable but over-rated 1996 effort "Jerry Maguire" to deliver this quite disappointing thriller/mind trip which starts off as a kind of strange but easily accessible drama before jumping into Twilight Zone land - and not in a good way. Its a shame really as the opening act of the film is actually pretty good, starting out with an abandoned New York City dream sequence - we then enter the life of David Aames (Tom Cruise), the playboy son of a dead publishing empire magnate. He is handsome, wealthy, charismatic (three things I certainly ain't) and basically does what playboys do - he sleeps around with a blond model, throws parties to which the like of Spielberg attend, and never does anything serious with his life. This is the guy we're supposed to sympathise with? Gimme a break.
Anyhow during one party where his current love interest - Cameron Diaz in a welcome 'stalker' style role which proves one of the film's saving graces - is annoying him, his best friend (a forgettable but fun Jason Lee) introduces him to Sofia (Cruz) and the pair share a memorable night together of talking and drawing, yes indeed these are party animals. I've never really seen the appeal of Cruz before but in this first part I do, she may not be the most conventionally pretty girl in the world but she does indeed glow with a welcome radiance at times. Despite his arrogance, Cruise does quite well in this first part too. Then a car crash happens and things start getting wierd.
The second act has an elephant-man style Cruise in-and-out of a mask in what has to be one of the most annoying and depressing 50 minutes of cinema I've seen all year. Throughout this, what feels like endlessly morbid and narcissistic sequence, David tries to win Sofia back and it all culminates in a truely painful nightclub scene - I don't mean emotionally painful, I just mean painful in terms of having to sit through this crap (Cruise's acting is quite bad here - resorting to very cliche over-the-top "I'm not an animal" style).
During the third act things move to a lighter but more muddled stage with people not being who they say they are, Cruise's injury disappearing and re-appearing, a TV segment about a cryogenically frozen dog continually popping up, etc. Nearly the whole movie is told in flashback with a psychiatrist (Kurt Russell in a surprisingly engaging performance) questioning David. By the end there's a lot going on and though all is made quite clear by one character, the problem isn't understanding it but rather that all up the whole thing is quite frankly silly. Its been a hard slog to find out what the hell is going on and we're handed a rather badly-written explanation wanting to disguise itself as a masterful twist. A film like "Total Recall" explored similar themes so much better and with thankfully a more uncertain ending.
Crowe has gone down a path I was hoping he wouldn't - the Paul Thomas Anderson school of self-gratification movie making (also known as 'wank cinema'). Crowe seeds the flick with his favourite pop culture references subtly in the background, but along with the pretty images and a nice supporting cast it can't help hide the utter pretentiousness of the whole thing. From the very ordinary leads (who only occasionally spark) and dull subject matter, to editing with a feel of desperation about it and an enjoyable score that feels out of place. Its an existential nightmare which fails in its most basic concept, what should be a big revelation is actually a big joke - Jean-Paul Satre would be spinning in his grave, or in this case he'd be frozen.