December 16, 2001

Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky is a bold, experimental journey into man’s dreams and desires. But has Cameron Crowe has taken a radical departure from his typical style, or a departure from his senses?

Vanilla Sky is based on the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar (The Others). Tom Cruise plays David Aames, a millionaire playboy whose wild, womanizing ways have led him into a disastrous affair and a crippling accident with his lover, Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz). The same night of the accident, he meets another woman: the enigmatic, adorable Sofia (Penélope Cruz, who played this role in the original). After the accident, David’s life comes falling apart. His face resembling the Frankenstein monster and limping like Igor, he falls into a deep depression. His best friend (Jason Lee) appears to be stealing away Sofia, and control of his family business is slipping away at the hands of his board of directors. While we are supposed to believe that his mental crisis is abetted by the symptoms of his injuries, it’s hard not to believe that David’s depressed because, frankly, he’s gone from looking like Tom Cruise to the Elephant Man.

The events described above are told to us from prison. A police shrink (Kurt Russell) is evaluating David while he awaits a trial for murder. We know early on that he is supposed to have murdered someone, but for the first two thirds of the film, we are not sure exactly who. Until we learn more about this murder, it is fairly easy to take the narrative at face value. But when the shrink starts dragging more memories out of the reluctant David, we discover that not all of what we have seen makes sense.

vanillaThe last third of the film completely falls apart. We are shown more and more about what led David to be charged with murder, but there is no logical way to piece together the narrative. When the story started winding around itself like a boa constrictor, I held out hope that we were supposed to puzzle out the solution to the contradictions. We hope to get inside David’s head before the shrink does, but it’s not that simple. In fact, there’s no way to solve the puzzle. I am not going to reveal the film’s explanation for the contrarian nature of the plot. Audiences love to solve mysteries and draw their own conclusions, but in this film, the solution is given to you in the last half hour and the choice to interpret the events is yanked away.

Filmmakers love it when people walk out of the theater discussing their perspectives on the story, but after this film, you have nothing to do but scratch your head. We are forcibly pushed out of the film; when you don’t know who is real and what really happened, how are you supposed to care about the fate of the characters? While Cruise is effective as the former playboy tortured by the hand of fate, he plays at a strong disadvantage. For about a third of his screen time, he wears an amazing, award-worthy prosthetic face that transforms his million-dollar mug into a hideous, lopsided pile of skin and bone. For another third of the film, he wears a skin-tone therapeutic mask, which transforms him into a short, limping, well-dressed mannequin. The problem is, we only get to see any of his face for the scenes when he is untroubled and content- when he really gets to sink his teeth into meaty material, we can’t see it.

Penélope Cruz is the Hype of the Year. All she has to do here is talk sweet nothings with a Spanish accent, bat her fifty-yard eyelashes at Cruise, and her freckles are supposed to win me over? There’s nothing happening there. Cameron Diaz, however, is fabulous as the jilted lover on the verge of mental collapse. Diaz plays the quiet desperation and ragged edge of sanity with subtlety and aplomb. Given the chance to shine in a brief but complex role, it’s nice to see her rise to the occasion.

Something about the original 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) clearly drew Crowe and Cruise to this project. You have to respect them for attempting such an experiment. But that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy watching it. (Loews Boston Common)