Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky
Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe (based on a screenplay Abre los ojos by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil Rodriguez)
Stars: Tom Cruise (David Aames), Penelope Cruz (Sofia Serrano), Kurt Russell (Dr. Curtis McCabe), Cameron Diaz (Julie Gianni), Jason Lee (Brian Shelby), Johnny Galecki (Peter Brow), Noah Taylor (Edmund Ventura)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2001
Country: USA

Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe's faithful Hollywood remake of Alejandro Amenabar's (The Others) 1997 Spanish film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), is many things all at once. It is a romantic melodrama, a murder mystery, an existential thriller, and a perplexing dream-logic puzzlebox, not to mention a barely disguised cinematic meditation on the larger-than-life perfection of Tom Cruise's visage. At times, you might think you wandered into a David Lynch film, except that everything is explained—almost too neatly and tidily—at the end. Crowe wants to confuse and confound you, but he doesn't want you leave with those feelings. Rather, Vanilla Sky is an orderly morality tale, and Crowe is making a point about the shallowness of hedonism and the pains of missing real opportunities in life.

Like Crowe's others films, Vanilla Sky is first and foremost a romance, and Crowe's unabashed humanism shines through the veneer of the calculated thriller just as surely as it shined through the '70s rock'n'roll excess of Almost Famous (2000). Tom Cruise, reteaming with Crowe after their extremely successful pairing in Jerry Maguire (1996), plays David Aames, a shallow, narcissistic young New Yorker who inherited the keys to a controlling 51% of daddy's publishing empire without working a day in his life. He flaunts his wealth with personal abandon, filling his chic Manhattan apartment with expensive gadgets and cruising the streets in his shiny classic Mustang. He is a man who truly relishes getting up in the morning simply because he can look at himself in the mirror.

David throws enormous parties that attract the like of Steven Spielberg (who can be quickly glimpsed in a cameo) and the entire Olympic snow-boarding team. But, at the same time, he's down-to-earth enough to have a best friend like Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), an aspiring novelist who watches David's antics with a kind of detached bemusement, giving him lectures from time to time about the need to endure the bitter in order to fully enjoy the sweet, a lesson that is—at first, anyway—entirely lost on David.

At his self-thrown birthday party, David meets the lovely Sophia (Penelope Cruz), a no-nonsense dancer ("the last semi-guileless woman in New York City," as David describes her) with whom he immediately and absolutely falls in love. They spend the night together at her apartment—no sex involved, just talking and cuddling—and when David emerges in the morning light, we get the sense that something has changed about him. For once, he wants to be a better man.

But, then he makes a decision. He gets in a car with Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a model/actress with whom David has an ongoing sexual relationship that is more casual to him than it is to her. In fact, Julie is so in love with David and so distraught that he only returns her affections through casual sex that she becomes suicidal and drives the car off a bridge and into a brick wall. She is killed, and David's face is seriously disfigured.

Being a narcissist who is more than aware of his own good looks, having his face disfigured is a major blow to David's sense of self-worth. But, more than that, we sense that the accident is fatally damaging on a deeper level because it came at the very moment in which David felt love for the first time and was on his way to changing his life for the better. The violence done to his body is only an externalization of the emotional violence fate played on him, ruining his genuine romance with Sophia and driving him even more into himself. (It is at this point that the more cynical in the audience can fully read into the film Cruise's own self-infatuation, particularly the scene in which he tells Sophia that he cannot smile, thus self-consciously robbing David/Cruise of his most marketable asset.)

From the very start, Vanilla Sky hints at future problems of a graver sort. The first scene is a dream in which David finds himself completely alone in the middle of New York City (an effectively disturbing image). We also see from the beginning that the film is told in flashback, with David in custody for an unknown crime, his face covered by a latex mask as he tells his story to a sympathetic police psychologist (Kurt Russell).

The story he tells becomes increasingly strange, and, in the last third, Vanilla Sky begins to drift into surrealistic dream logic, once again suggesting that, whenever things start going right for David, there is some force out there to intervene. Despite his disfigurement, he and Sophia renew their temporarily interrupted relationship, and a radical advance in plastic surgery restores his face. But, his life begins to come apart at the seams in ways that are completely unexpected, as his past and his present begin to merge, Sophia becomes Julie, his face is disfigured, and then it's not, he's accused of murder, but he doesn't know of whom. Rest assured, it all has an explanation, which is delivered in detail by a convenient plot device played by Noah Taylor.

Vanilla Sky has a lot going for it, and at times it seems to be working beautifully. It draws you in, and Crowe's experience with romantic dramas shows in the natural ease with which Cruise and Cruz develop a plausible true-love entanglement in only one night (after so many false starts, this may be the first time Cruz truly shines in a Hollywood movie).

Yet, at the same time, Cameron Crowe turns out to be the film's biggest liability, as he proves to be ill-equipped to handle the subtle and not-so-subtle tonal shifts of a mind-bending romantic thriller. There are time when you sense that he is in way over his head, and all the hectic 360-degree camera movements and rapid-fire editing feels like a visualization of Crowe's own anxiety, rather than David's.

Most jarring is Crowe's absolutely inappropriate use of music, which consistently sabotages his visuals. Crowe is well-known as being on the cutting edge of music, having been a reporter for Rolling Stone and having made Almost Famous, which many consider to be one of the greatest films ever made about rock'n'roll. He needed to let go of all that for Vanilla Sky, yet he drags it along with him and inflicts it on the movie. Just when Crowe jacks up the intensity or draws you into the story, he undercuts his efforts by pounding us with songs by R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, or (worst of all) The Beach Boys. Some of his musical decisions are simply inexplicable, not because they're bad songs, but because they draw attention to themselves in ways that detract from the story. It's an unfortunate instance in which the sensibilities of Crowe the music aficionado overwhelm the sensibilities of Crowe the director to the detriment of the film.

Still, the morality aspect of Vanilla Sky works its way through the twists and turns of the narrative, and we are left with the story of a man who must ultimately make a choice between dreams and reality. The explanation for everything that happens in the film may strike some as contrived, but I found it fascinating, even if I wished it had been revealed more carefully, rather than being unambiguously explained in lecture format. Of course, there is little if anything that is ambiguous about Vanilla Sky—it's a film that wants to perplex you, only to comfort you that much more in the end. Ultimately, it is exactly the kind of surreal, romantic thriller you would expect from the director of Jerry Maguire.

Vanilla Sky DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Languages English, French
Subtitles English
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateMay 21, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is fantastic, with strong, vivid colors and a sharp, clear image with strong detail and solid black levels. A first-rate effort.

English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, 2.0 Surround, French 2.0 Surround
The 5.1-channel soundtrack is likewise impressive, with solid directional effects and a good mix of sound effects, particularly during the movie's more surreal moments. Despite their inappropriate use in the movie, the various songs on the soundtrack are also well-presented.

Audio commentary by director Cameron Crowe and composer Nancy Wilson
For all intents and purposes, this is a Cameron Crowe solo commentary. Composer Nancy Wilson (who is also his wife) is in the room and offers a few words here and there (as well as strums some chords on her guitar now and then). And, at one point in the commentary, Crowe actually calls Tom Cruise on the phone, who offers his thoughts for a few minutes. But, otherwise, it's all Crowe. As Vanilla Sky is a puzzlebox film with multiple interpretations, it's worth listening to Crowe's take on the material, particularly as he points out small clues and hints that you might miss the first or second time around. He also discusses his numerous influences, including Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder, and the important role that he saw music playing in the film.

"Prelude to a Dream" Featurette
This is a six-minute freeform meditation on the meaning of the film disguised as a featurette. Self-reflexively narrated by writer/director Cameron Crowe and featuring behind-the-scenes footage, it is purposefully ambiguous and just slightly pretentious, but perhaps a good introduction for anyone who has not yet seen it.

"Hitting It Hard" Featurette
The title of this 10-minute featurette refers to the work done by Crowe and the film's stars in promoting the film, from Dallas, Texas, to Seoul, Korea, to Paris, to London. Odd as it sounds, this featurette focuses entirely on the film's promotional tour, with plenty of footage of various international premieres as well as snippets from Larry King Live and Charlie Rose. You get to hear Cameron Crowe snoring, see Tom Cruise with bedhead, and look at dozens of fans from across the world crying in the presence of Cruise and Cruz. By far the best moment, though, is when a French journalist in Paris asks Cruise if he still thinks he's real. Priceless.

An Interview With Paul McCartney
A brief, minute-and-a-half interview with McCartney in a segment from the tabloid TV show Entertainment Tonight.

Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa"Afrika Shox" Music Video

Unreleased Teaser Trailer
Presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

International Theatrical Trailer
Presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

Photo Gallery
This begins with an audio introduction by photographer Neal Preston, who explains his relationship with Cameron Crowe (they used to go on the road together in Crowe's Rolling Stone days), Crowe's affection for behind-the-scenes photographs, and the experience of shooting the deserted Times Square scene. The photo gallery itself is divided into eight sections, each of which contains several dozen images, all of which are anamorphically enhanced.

Copyright © 2001, 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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