Cruise and Cruz: Cold Chemistry

Dress for depression. The holiday movies are upon us, and from

the picture thus far, the big screen doesn’t promise much ho-ho-ho. In Vanilla Sky , Tom Cruise is a man whose

face has been smashed and burned beyond recognition, then surgically sutured

into a hideously deformed death mask. In A

Beautiful Mind , Russell Crowe is a paranoid schizophrenic. In I Am Sam , Sean Penn is a retarded man

with the learning capacity of a 7-year-old. In Monster’s Ball , Halle Berry is a homeless woman with an obese child

and a husband in the electric chair who unknowingly falls in love with the cop

who pulls the switch. Prepare to be dissolved in a tidal wave of tears, but do

not expect a lot of feel-good fun. Let the countdown begin.

Despite so much sad and

sobering subject matter, most of the holiday movies are challenging, serious,

artistically accomplished and worthy of attention. The single most glaring

exception is the asinine Vanilla Sky ,

a pretentious catastrophe of such monumental gibberish I predict it will reduce

even the most hard-core Tom Cruise fans to a state of stupefaction. Maybe all

that well-documented publicity about Mr. Cruise’s dyslexia is true; Vanilla Sky does appear to have been

made backwards. You could mix up the reels and never know the difference. It’s

so incomprehensible it almost makes the works of David Lynch look like tone

poems.

An update of Alejandro

Amenábar’s 1997 Spanish film Open Your

Eyes written and directed by Cameron Crowe, this howling calamity pretends to be about casual sex in the new millennium, but it’s really about

nothing more than Tom Cruise’s fear of aging. He takes off his shirt a lot and

still acts with his teeth, but now that Hugh Jackman has replaced him as the

cinema’s sexiest leading man, it’s obvious he’s heading for Viagra country. In

a plot so incoherent it defies description, Mr. Cruise plays a rich, reckless

thirtysomething man-about-town magazine publisher (a heterosexual Jann Wenner?)

with a babe-magnet bachelor pad in the Dakota, who races his convertible

through the empty streets of New York without looking at the wheel and always

finds a parking place in the middle of Times Square. His life is a column item,

with a secretary who talks like a Rolodex (“Courtney Love called to see if you

got her e-mail, and Graydon Carter called to see if dinner is still on

tonight!”)- until his face is demolished in a nasty car accident when one of

his jealous girlfriends (Cameron Diaz) commits suicide and decides to take him

with her, feature by feature.

Hiding from the world in a latex Phantom of the Opera contraption that looks like one of those

facial-toning masks on infomercials, he ends up in a wacko ward with a confused

shrink (Kurt Russell, of all people, looking younger and in better shape than

Mr. Cruise) who convinces him that it’s all been a bad dream. Sure enough, when

he takes off the mask, he’s the old Tom Cruise again. By this time, we’re all

going a bit squirrelly ourselves. Unable to distinguish fantasy from reality,

Mr. Cruise murders the girl who tries to cure his nightmares (Penélope Cruz),

thinking she is Ms. Diaz. But hold it. Turns out it’s really Mr. Cruise who has

been dead all along, or at least cryogenically frozen for the last 150 years.

Immortality as home entertainment! It’s the wave of the future! And get this

for romantic dialogue. “Look at us. I’m frozen and you’re dead, and I love

you.” “It’s a problem.” “I’ll see you in another life-when we’re both cats.”

Unintentional laughs are guaranteed, but they’re in all the wrong

places, and Mr. Crowe, a writer-director I used to admire, kills every one of

them by cutting to collages of Frank Sinatra album covers and film clips of

James Bond, Betty Boop and Leave It to

Beaver . None of this makes the remotest bit of sense. You find your mind

wandering, asking things like, “At these prices, can’t somebody teach Penélope

Cruz to speak coherent English?” and “Is she in this mess because she’s Tom’s

new squeeze, or did she replace Nicole because she was in this turkey?” Which

tells you something about how awful she is, and why Hollywood gossip columnists

are already labeling her in print as “the least welcome Spanish export since

the Inquisition.” Let’s face it: This girl can’t act, and her sexual chemistry

with her co-star is one of the film’s biggest unsolved mysteries.

Too many locations, too much fast cutting and a great deal of

overacting add up to a nightmare, all right, and not just on the screen. Who

says you can’t film a bad LSD trip? You can. It’s called Vanilla Sky , and it’s a good example of what self-destructive

cinematic havoc can be wrought by handing over millions of dollars to movie

stars to produce their own ego trips. In Vanilla

Sky , the inmates are running the asylum at last.

Dame Judi

As Dame Iris

Movies about brave, funny,

wise people suffering from terminal illnesses are familiar fodder. The point is

to show a film in which there’s still dignity in death; otherwise, who would

go? If you’ve ever been a caregiver, you know the real untold story is in the

caregiving process, not the dying. This is what makes Iris so special. Iris Murdoch was, of course, brilliant, unique and

worth caring about, so her death from Alzheimer’s in 1999 had an extra dose of

therapeutic compassion, like adrenaline. And Judi Dench-radiant, exasperating,

heartbreaking-gives the year’s most luminous performance in the title role. She

is cynicism-resistant. But the most important thing that distances Richard

Eyre’s wonderful film Iris from other

disease-of-the-week movies is that it’s an extraordinary love story about the

relationship between the most cherished British writer of the 20th century and

her loyal, supportive and adoring husband, John Bayley-a union tested by the

years that grew strongest and met its most daunting challenge when the chips

were down.

Iris is as much about John

as it is about Iris. Based on Mr. Bayley’s two acclaimed memoirs about his

wife, excerpted in The New Yorker ,

the movie is intimate, frank and shattering without being maudlin or sudsy. It

crowds a million details from a lifetime of achievement into a remarkably short time frame (it’s

only 90 minutes long).

Iris Murdoch-philosopher, poet, playwright, author of 26 novels,

who was made a dame by the Queen-believed there was only one freedom of any

importance: the freedom of the mind. It’s devastating to see her lose it. The

role is double-cast with the splendid Kate Winslet as the young Iris (a jolly,

outspoken broth of a girl, bohemian in her passions for nude swimming and sex

with both genders, always laughing and shocking everybody) and the magnificent

Judi Dench as the mature woman she became, failing at the top of her career

(lost in the subway, going blank in the middle of a live BBC interview,

forgetting the names of her closest friends), but playing the cards she was

dealt with courage and spunk.

It’s wounding to watch the

clouding of a clear, first-rate mind, and Dame Judi doesn’t just play the cruel

phases of the illness, she lives them. While a million unspoken words cross her

mind, a million feelings light her face and eyes. Fighting to keep writing and

talking, struggling to hold onto her beloved words, she reacts to her fate

first with confusion, annoyance and rage, then resignation and obedience,

finally slipping into a smiling, sweet-natured, childlike state while the house

sinks into a deplorable clutter and so does she.

Through it all, John suffers

the most. The film’s most wrenching moment comes when his frustration finally

explodes. During all their years of life together, he took the back seat, sat

through her lectures, edited her manuscripts, endured her love affairs, shared

her with the public. Now he’s got her all to himself at last, but it’s only

scraps. Still, he takes care of her to the end. It is impossible to describe

the power and accuracy of the dimensions Jim Broadbent brings to this role. He

even looks, sounds and acts like John Bayley-balding, bespectacled, clumsy,

stuttering, plain as suet pudding, dull as soapy water, and loving Iris

unconditionally. (In an inspired casting coup, Hugh Bonneville, who plays the

younger Bayley, has the same mannerisms and looks exactly like a younger Jim

Broadbent.) All four of the leading actors lend bold brushstrokes to the canvas

of a beloved literary icon worth celebrating.

If you rush to Iris to

see Judi Dench give another of her customary command performances, you won’t be

disappointed-but there is so much more. The combined artistry of the writing,

direction, camerawork and ensemble playing is what gives this movie a status of

literacy and optimism worthy of Dame Iris herself.

Altman Meets

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie meets Upstairs,

Downstairs in Robert Altman’s enthralling, sumptuously mounted Gosford Park , the most delicious

sugarplum for grown-ups of the Christmas season. An all-star dream cast

assembles for a weekend of pheasant hunting and murder at Gosford Park, one of

the stateliest country houses in England. The year is 1932 and the port is

flowing.

Downstairs, the kitchen staff warming the tureens and carving the

roasts, the butlers pouring the tea, the valets pressing the tuxedos and the

gossipy chambermaids carrying the hot water bottles include Helen Mirren,

Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Ryan Phillippe and Derek

Jacobi. Upstairs in the canopied beds you’ll find Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott

Thomas, Michael Gambon, Charles Dance, James Wilby and others.

Bob Balaban is a moronic

Hollywood film producer who has arrived in England to shoot a Charlie Chan

movie, and another surprise guest is the real-life composer-singer-matinee idol

Ivor Novello, the Noël Coward of his day, played with haughty relish by Jeremy

Northam, who performs all the songs himself. They are all terrific, but Maggie

Smith steals the show, draped in fur with cucumber slices on her eyes, as a

pickled old bitch with a withering remark for everything from the spoons to the

store-bought marmalade. When the lord of the manor is rudely executed after

dinner, everyone in the house reveals a motive, hides a dark secret and becomes

a suspect.

The inept inspector is Stephen Fry, who still looks like Oscar

Wilde. It’s like an elaborate game of Clue, and while you’re rubbing your eyes

to make sure you’re not in a Merchant-Ivory extravaganza, you’ll never guess

who the killer is. Opulently designed, meticulously directed, cleverly written

and wittily acted by a cast as polished as the floors, Gosford Park is the holiday season’s richest, glossiest, most

lavishly satisfying entertainment, and Robert Altman’s best film in years.