Directed By Cameron Crowe
By: Eric Greenwood
With Vanilla Sky Cameron Crowe starts to take himself a little too seriously. In all fairness, Vanilla Sky is an unbelievably entertaining film to watch until its absurd ending. Crowe takes drastic measures to throw as much eye candy on the screen as possible. For the ladies, of course, there’s Tom Cruise, who proves that his string of decent films lately is no fluke with a performance that is as nuanced as his stint in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and as charismatic as his role in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. And for the gentlemen, there’s both Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. A guy could hardly complain. Crowe’s camera uncharacteristically adores the good and bad alike. Crowe usually saves such gushing for characters he empathizes with like Kate Hudson"s Penny Lane in last year’s Almost Famous, but here he is not so discerning.
Based closely on Alejandro Amenabar’s 1997 Spanish film, Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky is yet another journey into the purgatory that separates dreams from reality. The story itself is fairly linear, but Crowe’s visual sequencing makes it seem a bit more convoluted than it really is. Cruise plays David Ames, a filthy rich magazine publisher, who inherited all his wealth from his Hearst-like tycoon father. Only a guy that rich could have a “fuck buddy” that looks like Cameron Diaz. All his wealth and power is meaningless to him, of course. He’s just looking for love like everybody else, and when Penelope Cruz shows up at his birthday party on the arm of his best friend (Jason Lee), he can’t help but manipulate things to go his way- even at the expense of his best friend. This is all too easy when you have real Monet(s) hanging in your “extra room”, 3-D holograms of John Coltrane entertaining party guests, and Pete Towshend’s broken guitar in a glass case (a true crime against rock and roll).
Penelope Cruz’s Sophia smiles awkwardly and waves her hair around enough to seduce Ames without even really trying. Cruz is an odd bird. Her beauty comes and goes depending on the camera angle. She can look like a bug-eyed fish one moment and a goddess the next, but Crowe does his best to keep the soft light on her. David and Sophia spend one night together platonically, flirting and thriving off the buzz of a new crush, but first thing the very next morning Julie Gianni (played maniacally by Diaz) shows up and fucks everything up. See, she’s sick and tired of being David’s “fuck buddy”- she wants more. The “crazy girl” alarms go off in David’s eyes as she pleads her case: “I even swallowed your cum.” Turns out she really is nuts, and she drives them both off a bridge at full speed. Don’t worry- I haven’t really given anything away yet. This all happens in the first section of the film.
Julie dies in the car crash, but David lives, only to have his chiseled good looks destroyed beyond repair. His face is a mangled mess- so bad that he takes to wearing a latex mask (which seems to straddle the line of his character in Eyes Wide Shut). This is where the film veers into never never land. Scenes are repeated note for note with only slight changes, and we are to presume that one is David’s reality while the other is his dream state. The scenes are both visually and audibly arresting thanks in part to Crowe’s exquisite taste in music. His soundtracks are always perfect mix tapes, and Vanilla Sky’s is no exception, as it features such disparate acts as Radiohead, Todd Rundgren, Sigur Ros, The Monkees (from the Head Soundtrack, of all things), and Red House Painters. Cruise’s character even name-drops Washington DC’s Barcelona, which is just surreal to hear.
Crowe instinctively knows how to pace a scene around a song. Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” is eerily appropriate in the opening scene, establishing Ames’ ultra-sleek bedroom decor. The pulsing electronics slither around all of Ames’ shiny, high-end toys. And you simply can’t go wrong with Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” That’s an automatic “fire me up” scene in the bag. You’d have to try to mess that one up. Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” is the perfect way to give a new courting ritual a vintage feel, even if it is Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz frolicking in the bed. Jeff Buckley is another given when it comes to setting the mood for a hip, New York City romance. I could go on and on. Crowe knows these songs as well as his own scenes, and it shows.
It’s hard to swallow the fact that none of these characters is even remotely likeable (with the exception of Jason Lee’s sorely underused “best friend” role). That’s simply unheard of in a Cameron Crowe film. No hero. No sympathy for the main character. Ames is a self-absorbed rich prick before the crash and a self-absorbed rich prick with a bad attitude after it. Cruise throws himself dutifully into the role, as he always does, but it’s probably not too hard for him to play an extremely powerful, solipsistic asshole. However, Cruise’s naturally guileless demeanor probably had to stretch to reach the depths of cynicism inherent to David Ames existence. Sophia’s role is too one-dimensional to appreciate, and Cruz is an awkward onscreen beauty. Her difficult English is also distracting. Julie Gianni is the only character whose motivations we can firmly grasp, and she’s out of her mind. (Why would Ames be so disinterested in her anyway, well, despite her craziness, of course? Diaz looks absolutely stunning in this film.)
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it is a cheat. Crowe leads us to believe that a big mystery is unraveling, and the build up is gripping. The Lynch-ian use of Noah Taylor (the young David Helfgott in Shine) adds a surreal quality to the film. I was glued to my seat, unaware of the two hours and twenty minutes passing me by, and anxiously awaiting the grand finale. Crowe injects enough wit and sarcasm into the dialogue to balance his never-before-seen pretentious side. Who would have thought that the writer/director of Jerry McGuire had such an artsy fartsy film up his sleeve? But it’s too little too late. The end is a joke- a laughable crash and burn, which nullifies the time spent waiting for it. Crowe reduces the film"s power to that of an overlong music video. Vanilla Sky is a pretty film with a few dazzling scenes, but it"s heartless and soulless and, as we find out in the end, utterly pointless.