Vanilla Sky

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Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla Sky: Cameron Crowe's Cinematic Neapolitan

Jun 28, 2002 (Updated Jun 28, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Wonderful technical filmmaking, a fun premise, some very strong acting

Cons:Not much of an advance beyond the original; perhaps a bit egotistical?

The Bottom Line: Cameron Crowe's "cover" of Abre Los Ojos will feel familiar if you've seen the original, but that doesn't mean it isn't a thoughtful, well-made movie. It just isn't fresh.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

For the most part, we use the term "cover" in an entertainment sense to refer to when one artistic takes another artist's work and gives it their own spin, makes it their own. There are many levels on which a cover can work. Jimi Hendrix, for example, respected the integrity of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower," but the incendiary cover version is very personal and unique. Dylan has said since that he wondered why Hendrix didn't do more of his songs. Both versions of the track stand alone and yet compliment each other. Lenny Kravitz, on the other hand, took The Guess Who's searing "American Woman" and made it into a generic rock song, without understanding the song on any level.

On the DVD director's commentary for Vanilla Sky Cameron Crowe refers to the film as a cover version, his own take on Alejandro Amenábar's 1997 film Abre Los Ojos. Of course, when Crowe started on his version of the film (immediately after completing his personal masterpiece Almost Famous), very few people on this side of that Atlantic knew Amenábar or his film. But the Spanish director has a sleeper hit with The Others, which encouraged many people to seek out his earlier work. I'm not gonna be disingenuous here, I had already seen Abre Los Ojos well before the release of The Others. But I'm not going to lie, I rented it when it first came out on video largely because of how hot Penelope Cruz looked on the cover. [This was well before American audiences became briefly infatuated and then largely apathetic towards the Spanish star.]

Abre Los Ojos or Open Your Eyes is one of those foreign films that has gained an instant reputation among people who really just like being able to say "Well, the original was better." Make no mistake, it's a nifty little film. It's sometimes hypnotic, sometimes provocative, and made with the same casual craft that Amenábar brought to his Nicole Kidman ghost story. It's a thriller, a character study, a sci-fi thriller, and it's also frequently funny.

And Vanilla Sky isn't necessarily a lesser movie. In fact, in most ways, it's the exact same movie. Eduardo Noriega's Cesar has become Tom Cruise's David Aames. Najwa Nimri's Nuria has become Cameron Diaz's Julie. And Penelope Cruz's Sofia has become Penelope Cruz's Sofia, only in English now. Some of the original film's very best shots have been taken (as homage) and are now some of Vanilla Sky's best shots. If you've seen the original, none of the surprises are actually surprising, but they're executed in many of the same ways. And the essential questions of the film, about the consequences of little actions in life, about the distinctions between waking life and dreams, and between physical beauty and truth all remain. Let's get real, Abre Los Ojos is a great episode of The Twilight Zone stretched for two hours. Vanilla Sky then, plays like a great episode of The Twilight Zone as aired on VH1.

I can't really speak for how Abre Los Ojos plays to a Spanish audience. I don't know if Eduardo Noriega brings any iconic baggage to the original film (though I suspect he didn't, since he had only done a few films before this one). What I do know is that Vanilla Sky becomes a different, and possibly more problematic film because of Mr. Tom Cruise. While Noriega was a blank slate for me, Tom Cruise cannot make a movie anymore without commenting within his performance on what it means to be Tom Cruise. Everything he does now relies on our knowledge of Tom Cruise films, Tom Cruise private life, and Tom Cruise publicity. It's possible that Far and Away was the last film Cruise made where he was attempting to fully disappear into a role. And he was awful in that awful movie. Since then, Cruise has become an expert on winking at the audience. We know him so well and it seems that he's trying to convince viewers at every turn that he knows us and he knows himself.

In Jerry Maguire Cruise and Cameron Crowe had a great time playing with what a student of semiotics would call "Tom Cruise As 'Sign.'" The film is full of moments that conjure up the Best of Cruise and his performance is like a Greatest Hits compilation. It's "Cruise as Cruise." Egotistical, but willing to learn. Ignorant about women, but in love with them. Out for success, but also out for self-knowledge. Cock-sure, but willing to be emotionally vulnerable. Jerry Maguire is everything Cruise has always been, but holding it against earlier, more amateurish performances, it showed that Cruise's quest to work with the best directors possible wasn't in vain. The guy was growing as an actor. Even more recent explorations have had the similar goals — Magnolia for example, promises Tom Cruise as we've never seen him before, but after a while, we get Cruise and Jason Robards and it becomes Tom Cruise as we've always seen him before, only a bit better.

And so again, Vanilla Sky ends up being less about a character going on a journey and more about the audience's willingness to take a trip with Tom Cruise. The film's box office proved an interesting confirmation of that. The film opened big, to reviews that ranged from raves to total trashings. The film took a big dip in its second weekend, but then Cruise kept plugging it and plugging it and plugging it (a documentary on the film's press tour is included with the DVD, but I didn't have time to watch it) and finally, as if by sheer force of will, he carried the film to the 100 million dollar mark at the US box office, where it finally died. Cruise knew what the performance of this film said about him better than anybody and he made sure that the box office said what he wanted it to — We like him no matter what.

Cruise plays David Aames, a wealthy publisher of three magazines. When he arrives at his birthday party, his best friend Brian (Jason Lee) asks how he's doing and David responds, with a Tom Cruise grin, "Livin' the dream, baby, livin' the dream." And he is. He's rich and great looking, with all the toys and women in the world. The halls of his office are like a Miss American contest and he gets to have casual, no-strings-attached sex with Julie (Cameron Diaz), a wannabe actress/singer. And then, at his party, he meets Sofia (Cruz) and instantly falls in love, because Sofia is beautiful, smart, and somewhat unimpressed with the trappings of his life. Brian is also in love with Sofia, but David always gets what he wants.

But in the story that's interlocking, we realize that something horrible has happened. We find David in a jail or asylum being interviewed by a psychologist played by Kurt Russell. He's wearing a blank plastic mask and there's talk of murder. But what happened?

My description will only go so far, so don't worry. My discussion of the film won't go past the hour mark, if that far. I want to leave things for people who haven't seen the film.

Back in our primary story, Sofia and David spend a perfect sex-free night together, becoming close, and promising to see each other soon. And David leaves her apartment with a resolve to turn his life around. But as he exits, Julie drives up and asks him to take a drive. This is one of those decisions, points at which your life can go various ways. David's life goes into the car, where Julie confesses to being in love with him. This beautiful blond, we suddenly discover, is actually a little bonkers. But almost immediately after this happens, Julie drives off a bridge.

Three weeks later, David wakes up, disfigured and life in ruins. He has trouble moving and speaking and his appearance saddens him. He tries throwing money at a group of doctors, but the best they can do is offer him a facial prosthesis, or a mask. When David tries to pick up the pieces of his old life, he discovers that things have changed and that he has changed and after a night at a club with Sofia and Brian, he realizes that things can never be the same.

But then he gets a chance that changes everything. But anything from there on, I'll let you discover for yourself, if you haven't already.

In addition to taking the best parts of the original and adding his favorite leading man, Crowe has made some minor changes to the original. David is now a man of his times, a man both in loved by pop culture and ruled by it. Crowe adds touches from Billy Wilder and Francois Truffaut and spikes the dialogue with entertainment references that rarely ever actually add anything to the film. Sometimes the pop culture references enhance characters — like when David and the doctor discuss their favorite Beatle, or when David teases Brian about his Sinatra fixation. But generally they're just toss-offs, which probably have moderate meaning in the overall mosaic of the film, but certainly aren't necessary.

Listening to Crowe's commentary actually does serve to improve the quality of Vanilla Sky. I rarely let such things sway my opinion, but my decision to recommend this movie comes largely from watching the film a second time while Crowe discussed and explains just how well-planned this film is. The film's twist ending could be revealed through any number of clues throughout. In this respect Crowe has taken the original film and made it into more of an active participation puzzle. The film has many layers of reality and Crowe makes sure that the layers bleed into each other, but also aid each other.

DVD lets you pick up all the pieces you missed (as well as any number of clues that Crowe and Co. may not have even intended that support a variety of conclusions which, once again, may not have been intended), but it also gives you the opportunity to check out all of the film's technical virtues. Cinematographer John Toll, who's one of the best working DPs (he won back to back Oscars for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), has created on of those amazing Valentines to New York City, giving character to both predictable locations (I recall Central Park in fall...) and a variety of less regularly seen neighborhoods. The film has several standout sequences which are just amazing to look at, most particularly the opening scene, in which Cruise runs through a totally deserted Times Square. I also love the night club sequence, bathed in blue light, in which Cruise turns his mask to the back of his head and dances as a Janus figure around the club. Haunting. The DVD lets you slow the film down and examine the editing decisions from Joe Hutsching and Mark Livolsi. The film relies on cross-cutting and sometimes near-subliminal edits to both disorient the viewer and tip them off to the film's solutions. Yeah, the DVD's a treat.

The performances are mixed. Penelope Cruz just isn't comfortable acting in English. I wish she were, but there's not much I can say beyond that she was better in the original because she seemed comfortable, When she doesn't need to speak, she conveys emotion wonderfully through her eyes, but when she opens her mouth, it's never clear if she understands the nuances of the dialogue. I also have to say that no matter how up close and personal they've gotten since the shooting of the film, Cruz and Cruise have very little chemistry and I'm not convinced that Crowe helped out in the regard. In their scenes together, Cruz almost seems to disappear sometimes, sucked into Cruise's star power.

Cameron Diaz does much better because while you may still have doubts about her acting ability, the woman produces an amazing amount of wattage. Her performance just jumps out. She's sweet, and psycho, and tragic, and sexy and she and Cruise *do* seem to have chemistry.

The supporting males are excellent as well. Jason Lee is clearly the kind of actor that certain chatty writer/directors see as a godsend. He has a quick tongue that can make any dialogue, no matter how wordy, flow. No wonder Kevin Smith and Cameron Crowe have now used him repeatedly. As Cruise's project, his charity case friend, Lee gets to be typically glib, but also to mine his dramatic reserves and to give an indication of how much he's capable of, given the right material. And Kurt Russell's character makes more and more sense as the film goes along. I don't want to spoil anything,but at the beginning of the movie you're like "Dude, Kurt Russell is a movie star, why is he doing this little part," but as things progress, you understand.

Every little part is filled richly. Timothy Spall (Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy is amazingly effective with a tiny part as Cruise's family lawyer and Tilda Swinton, Alicia Witt, and Noah Taylor spice up the backgrounds. Conan O'Brien has a funny cameo and look at Steven Spielberg popping up at the party scene because, well, he was there.

And then there's Cruise. You see, it's Tom Cruise, and not so much his character who we're supposed to know is "Livin' the dream, baby, livin' the dream." He's the man who could coast on his charm endlessly if he wanted to. And what a field day for a pretty-boy actor to get to play hideously deformed. Cruise and Crowe seem a little too smug about showing the audience how brave they are to tamper with Cruise's visage. Look how tough my life would be, Cruise seems to be screaming, if I only looked like Tom Cruise on one side of my face. Crowe and Cruise can enjoy the fact that on one side the actor gets to be kinda scarred, but on the other side, you still get Tom Cruise's twinkling eye. There but for the grace of G-D go I, you can almost hear Cruise The Actor saying. But in his deformed sequences, Cruise seems to be channeling more than his share of Hunchback Lon Chaney. There's a scene in the prison where alarms keep going off and I was amazed that Cruise had enough restrain not to lurch forward and yawp, "The Bells, The Bells." So what he has here is very much an actor's showcase performance. He gets to be slightly disabled, spend much of the film in a mask (allowing us to marvel at his physical acting, which is sometimes good and sometimes overblown), and yet he still spends most of the movie smiling like Tom Cruise, talking like Tom Cruise, and getting the babes like Tom Cruise. Cruise clearly gets to both have and eat his cake here.

I'm just not sure that Vanilla Sky was something that Cameron Crowe needed to do. I'm confident that he needed to show that he could expand his genre range and he certainly does that here. And he shows that he can do work which highlights his skills as a director, rather than a writer who also directs. But was adding a smashed Pete Townsend guitar and a holographic John Coltrane and references to Sabrina, Love In the Afternoon, and Jules and Jim sufficient? If you've seen Abre Los Ojos, you can be forgiven for viewing Vanilla Sky as a wonderfully proficient karaoke movie. Crowe stays in tune, follows the bouncing ball so he doesn't miss a word, and every once in a while he ads a special flourish. He's a good enough director, though, that he gets away with it. I just hope he returns to original work for his next film.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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