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Odd Couples 

Cruise meets Cruz in Vanilla Sky; Bayley mourns Murdoch in Iris

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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Photo by Neal Preston

In the modish 1997 thriller Open Your Eyes, Spanish heartthrob Eduardo Noriega played a troubled narcissist trapped in a serial nightmare, possibly of his own creation. In Cameron Crowe’s remake, Tom Cruise plays a troubled narcissist trapped in several pounds of injury makeup, as well as in Crowe’s dither over whether to keep faith with the original or make it over as Jerry Maguire with a bit of Spanish lace. Shot for shot and word for word, much of Vanilla Sky is a copy slavish enough to make you wonder why the militantly uncynical Crowe even bothered — beyond Paramount’s hope that without subtitles the respectable box office racked up by Open Your Eyes would soar into the millions.

Though overstuffed and burdened with a surfeit of style over substance, Open Your Eyes — which was directed by Alejandro Amenábar, who also made the recent hit The Others — is powered by two expertly interlocked stories that, taken together, probe the limits of paranoia and desire in a corporate culture. In one, a young man in a face mask sits in a prison cell, reluctantly revealing to a psychiatrist the dreams, or experiences, that may have brought him to commit a murder. Tortured by gnawing uncertainty about whether a corporate someone was out to get him or whether he was dreaming his own terrors and desires, the guy’s a wreck. Crowe is diligently, dully mimetic in his fidelity to Amenábar’s dark vision, but it’s clear that his heart lies with the love story that emerges from the young man’s narrative.

If anyone is being rehashed here, it’s Cameron Crowe. David Aames, charismatic heir to a Manhattan publishing fortune, who’s as careless with his board duties as he is with the women he beds in droves, invites comparison with Cruise’s sports agent in Jerry Maguire, who needed the love of a good woman to spring him from his frantically empty life. Only this time Cruise, wearing a tremulous smirk that seems to apologize for having to sully his nice-guy reputation by playing a jerk, displays the same languid lack of conviction he showed in Eyes Wide Shut — possibly because once again he’s playing opposite his offscreen better half, here Penélope Cruz.

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Doubtless much of Vanilla Sky’s audience will be avidly watching to see whether Hollywood’s latest hot couple can work up a frothier head of steam than Cruise and Kidman did in Eyes Wide Shut. They’re going to be disappointed. As Sofia, the unpolished, down-to-earth woman David falls in love with the moment he sets eyes on her, Cruz is reprising the role she played in Open Your Eyes, which in the end was carried by the intense young actress’ symbiosis with Noriega. Cruz is an almost implausibly voluptuous woman whose sultry lips and penetrating dark eyes were made for operatic melodrama, not the giddy romance Crowe seems to have in mind. Under his direction she’s doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as did Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire. But here the flighty, kittenish charm that so became Zellweger absurdly diminishes Cruz, to the point that she’s fatally sidelined by Cameron Diaz, who plays Julie, the sometime date — ruthless, lonely and dangerously gifted in the sack — who takes David a good deal more seriously than he does her.

As Sofia’s opposite and the mirror of David’s ugliest fears about himself, Julie is easily the most compelling figure in the movie — the embodiment of all the desperate, enraged rich brats spawned by three decades of wealth unmoored from decency. Crowe, for his part, is decency itself, but unlike Amenábar he’s a pop romantic with no stomach or aptitude for noir: David’s dreams take their shape from Bob Dylan, Harper Lee and Jules et Jim, and we can be sure that the sources of his unhappiness will be explained, that he will learn things and move toward a better life. That’s reassuring — but reassurance comes cheap.

Toward the end of Richard Eyre’s wonderful film about Iris Murdoch, the renowned British novelist and philosopher (played by another great dame, Judi Dench) sits marooned in the advanced stages of the Alzheimer’s that will shortly kill her, intently watching Teletubbies in the indescribably messy Oxford house she shares with literary critic John Bayley, her husband of 40 years. From the doorway Bayley, a pink-cheeked and hilariously implausible helpmeet in a filthy apron, cocks a quizzical eyebrow and offers his wife a cheerful Teletubby greeting — “Uh-oh!” The moment transmits horror and light relief all at once, and it sums up the sensibility of Iris, which was adapted by Eyre and Charles Wood (who also wrote one of the best British films of the post–World War II era, The Knack) from Bayley’s two celebrated recent memoirs about his wife, who died in 1999. The film is not a biopic or a portrait of a famous marriage so much as it is an imaginative essay on what made a union between two radically different people work as well as it did. Far from making light or making fun of the toll the disease has taken on the couple, Eyre puts his finger on what made this marriage endure, in good times no less than when it was tested beyond endurance: the ability to step into and accept the other’s world, even when it looks like a foreign country.

Or at least Bayley’s ability to step into Iris’ world, which according to the movie seemed like a foreign country from the moment the two met at Oxford. Murdoch frequently disappeared on Bayley, and was candid to a fault about her “friends,” the lovers she took of both sexes. She certainly didn’t look the part of a sex bomb — she dressed baggily and famously sported an unkempt pudding-basin hairdo. Yet Kate Winslet, who couldn’t look plain if she wore an old sack (her wardrobe comes pretty close), conveys as the young Murdoch exactly the forthright charisma that drew others to this intense and uncompromising woman. Indeed, one wonders what the real John Bayley — portrayed as a young man by Hugh Bonneville and in old age by Jim Broadbent — must think of his doddery, compulsively quiescent movie persona, set against the vitality of young Iris and the steely dignity she grew into before Alzheimer’s cruelly stripped her of what she loved best: the capacity to use words to explore the possibilities of freedom and goodness.

Murdoch and Bayley lived in an age and a social class that afforded them the luxury of an unselfconscious bohemianism which had nothing to do with wearing cool clothes or being seen at the right soirees. It meant, quite simply, the freedom to live as they chose. Eyre, who’s far from naive about the marriage, doesn’t gloss over its complex power matrix. Like many adventurers, Iris was often childishly dependent on her partner. Her increasing dementia pushed this dependence to extremes that drove Bayley up the wall — while allowing him to glory in the fact that at last he had her to himself. Which in turn allowed him that “Uh-oh,” the willingness to join her in her lost world rather than attempt to control it.

One can’t imagine these two children ever having kids. By any current yardstick, their marriage seems woefully unequal, co-dependent and eccentric. That was its beauty. They were everything to each other, and their marriage — like many a partnership that works — was fed by an emotional give-and-take that had nothing to do with who did what chores. Bayley was Murdoch’s rock; Murdoch drew Bayley into a life he could never have dreamed of having on his own. “It’s a novelist’s privilege to see how odd everyone is,” Murdoch tells a rapt audience in a public lecture. Murdoch and Bayley had to have been one of the oddest couples in the world — and one of the most enchanting.

VANILLA SKY | Written and directed by CAMERON CROWE Based on the film Open Your Eyes by ALEJANDRO AMENÁBAR Produced by TOM CRUISE, PAULA WAGNER and CROWE | Released by Paramount Pictures | Citywide

IRIS | Directed by RICHARD EYRE | Written by EYRE and CHARLES WOOD | Based on the memoirs Elegy for Iris: A Memoir and Iris and Her Friends by JOHN BAYLEY | Produced by ROBERT FOX and SCOTT RUDIN | AMC Century 14

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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