Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality and strong language)
Running Time: 2:16
Release Date: 12/14/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Watching Vanilla Sky, I felt that something darker behind what’s on the screen is just yearning to crawl out, grab the proceedings, and bring them somewhere into the essential fears of the human psyche. There are glimpses and small segments of the movie that actually do let go and give into their darker nature, but for the most part, it feels as though the movie is playing it safe—making sure the audience only feels a bit uncomfortable but knowing it’ll all work out somehow. That’s exactly the kind of thing a movie like this shouldn’t do. When a film begins treading territory like this, I immediately let it take me in, but then when the movie begins telling me, "Don’t worry. It’s just a movie," I get restless and disappointed. Vanilla Sky walks that fine line between disturbing and strange, but with its pandering, it doesn’t actually achieve either. It’s only disturbing in flashes and only strange in the way the storytelling makes you constantly wonder exactly what’s going on.
The film shows great promise in a bravura opening sequence which starts with quick overhead flashes of New York City. Eventually we’re in an apartment, where David Aames (Tom Cruise) wakes up, goes through his normal morning routine, and leaves his building only to discover that all of New York is empty. Getting out of his car, he runs down Times Square and ultimately wakes up again. Now we begin to learn a little more about him. He’s the son of a deceased magazine magnate and now owns a little more than half of his father’s company. The other less-than-half is owned by a board of directors that David calls the Seven Dwarves. He’s extremely wealthy, lives the kind of life people only dream of, and has a "friend" ("We occasionally sleep together.") named Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz). At his birthday party, though, he meets a woman named Sofia (Penélope Cruz) who could change everything. Unfortunately for him, Julie has put much more at stake with their relationship and takes David for a car ride that will end her life and completely change his, leaving him disfigured.
All of this is revealed in flashbacks as David relates his story to Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell) who is making an evaluation of David’s sanity for his upcoming murder trial. I wouldn’t dare give away much more than this, as the majority of the pleasure in watching Vanilla Sky is the way each new detail of the plot comes into play but then seems to be insignificant in the next scene. Based on Abre Los Ojos, a film only four years old, this is an intelligent story, and the actual complicated plot developments are handled well by writer/director Cameron Crowe, but it’s in the details in between where Crowe keeps everything simple. The relationship between David and Sofia feels too much like a typical romance, even though it has some more complicated issues in the foreground. The script occasionally feels a bit too witty or ironic for its own good, once again showing the movie’s audience-pleasing tendencies, and the soundtrack underscoring most of the film, comprised of multiple pop songs, just emphasizes the simplistic development of character and theme.
It’s in the actual storyline and plotting that Vanilla Sky has its most success. The movie deals with dreams and reality, a topic handled much better in Waking Life, but this does manage to weave an intriguing tale into these themes. As the plot begins piling information on the audience and the characters play Hollywood romance in the background, the movie builds to a conclusion that is quite unexpected (at least until minutes before it’s revealed) and sheds everything that’s come before it in a new light. The ending is by far one of the movie’s biggest saving graces, and when it does finally come, the suspicion that everything that came before it is downplayed proves correct. The ending itself pretty much spells out the conclusion the audience should come to, and if it hadn’t, there would have been ample room for ambiguity.
Tom Cruise is a movie star not afraid to experiment with his image, as he’s shown particularly in his performances since Crowe’s own Jerry Maguire. Here he’s given the chance to change his physical appearance, but instead of delving into the character, he plays a version of himself for the most part. When he’s disfigured, he plays a disfigured version of himself. Perhaps this was a choice on Crowe’s part as a way to make sure the audience still identifies with Cruise even though he doesn’t look like himself. Whatever the reason, the movie suffers from this lack of development. Cruz is playing the role she played in Abre Los Ojos, which could easily be considered lazy on someone’s part. Diaz doesn’t get to do too much, but she does make a lasting enough impression to remain a part of the movie even after her character’s demise. Two supporting performances make a solid impression, though. Jason Lee plays an author writing about inadequacy and rejection based on personal experience, and Russell is surprisingly effective as the doctor, especially during later revelations.
The resolution really sells Vanilla Sky, and perhaps there is some room for ambiguity. It’s an almost-daring venture but ultimately is another in a long line of "safe" Hollywood projects. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’ll be a while, I suspect, before I can eliminate the term "safe" from my critical vocabulary.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.