Director Ron Howard began making movies modestly after success as a TV actor — he was Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show" and Richie on "Happy Days." But, gradually, success brought him to bigger budgeted movies.

From the minor action film "Grand Theft Auto" in 1978, Howard worked his way up to major studio films like "Night Shift," "Splash," "Cocoon," "Gung Ho," "Willow," "Parenthood" and "Backdraft."

Looking at that succession of successful movies, it's easy to see that Howard was eventually integrated into the bigger-is-better school of filmmaking. It's unfortunate that he's also forsaken intimacy with his audience for spectacle. It was apparent in "Backdraft" and is even more obvious in "Far and Away."

This is ironic since "Far and Away" came from a story by Howard that is based on his own Irish-immigrant roots. You would think this would make the film more personal, that it would give us characters to care about and a story with heart. But instead, "Far and Away" is one huge cinematic moment after another and always too aloof and distant to make us care.

Howard did get Tom Cruise to star, however, so it's going to be a hit anyway.

The story has Irish peasant farmer Cruise traveling to America in 1892, reluctantly in the company of a spoiled rich woman (his real-life wife Nicole Kidman) who treats him as a servant. (They meet when she sticks him in the leg with a pitchfork . . . ah, these Hollywood romances.)

They fall in love, of course, but they're both too proud and stubborn to admit it until the final reel.

Before that, Cruise becomes a boxer for a corrupt fellow Irishman (Colm Meaney), while Kidman plucks chickens for a living. They both share a room in a brothel and masquerade as brother and sister. And tragedy ultimately separates them until they are reunited at the Oklahoma land rush, where her parents and her old boyfriend have joined her. Right.

The story is ridiculously old-fashioned, with romantic flourishes and visual spectacle (the land-rush scenes are outstanding) in place of an interesting storyline and well-developed characters. There are plenty of missed opportunities here and the cast is exceptional — Cruise is quite good (including his Irish accent) and Robert Prosky is terrific as Kidman's father. But in the end, Howard glosses over dramatic possibilities in search of the next huge setup.

And the out-of-body experience that passes for the film's ending is so ridiculous you have to see it to believe it.

"Far and Away" is rated PG-13 for violence, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.