The blandening of the cinema strata over the past decade has allowed one of the dimmest, lowest common denominator actors on the planet to become the most successful movie star on seven continents (MI: 2 was HUGE in Antarctica). Yep, that’s Tom Cruise, who, rather than showcasing talent and vitality, escapes from most roles with a knowing wink and a smug grin that captures dollars from wallets and forces a mooning female (and gay male) audience to moon over him. It’s no surprise that the films where he actually does some acting calisthenics is when he deals with a strong director who knows what he wants and gets it no matter what….witness BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, EYES WIDE SHUT, and, seemingly boding well for the Time/Warner Brothers/AOL juggernaut 2001 holiday season, JERRY MAGUIRE, where yet-to-fail Cameron Crowe coaxed some humanity from the usually one-dimensional hotshot. Sadly, the qualities of their former collaboration are not to be meaningfully found in Crowe’s first truly jumbled effort, VANILLA SKY.One cannot begin to adequately describe VANILLA SKY without spoiling something, somewhere, and seeing as how reviewers who spoil are one step above maggot-encrusted feces on the hierarchy of reincarnation, I shan’t divulge much…even the film’s true genre, which, if it were marketed as such, would keep oodles of fans in the megamultiplex auditorium next door watching OCEAN’S ELEVEN. Suffice it to say that it rotates around an axis of subconscious, reality vs. perception, and wish fulfillment gone horribly awry. It’s a promising stew, but the sum is less than the total of its parts.
"Vanilla is right"
Cruise is David Aames, hotshot heir to a publishing fortune who casually bones Cameron Diaz, so it’s hard to work up much sympathy for our hero. He funds his best friend Brian Shelby’s (Jason Lee…Lee, you da dawg) novel while dueling with a semi-imposing board of seven directors who control 49% of the company. He dreams of being disconnected, driving and running through an empty New York City, and hears the phrase “Open Your Eyes” constantly. During Cruise’s birthday party, Lee escorts Sophia (Penelope Cruz), and Cruise quickly moves to woo her to the dismay of Cam Diaz (OK, Julie Gianni is her character’s name, but when she dances in her underwear who can you think of except Cameron Diaz?). David and Sophia spend a meaningfully platonic night together…and then it blows up. What we’ve witnessed is a flashback, and a now-disfigured and Shape-masked David is resisting the efforts of shrink Kurt Russell (when will Goldie be in a Cameron Crowe movie?) to tap into the reasons he killed someone. No more shall I say.
What I WILL say is that this is easily Crowe’s most ambitious film…thematically, visually, technically. And you HAVE to give props to reaching, to trying to buck the expectations of an audience and your own history as a chronicler of small human moments by attempting something on a grander scale, and doing so only a year and a half after a career-defining masterwork like ALMOST FAMOUS. And admittedly, when VANILLA SKY connects, it hardwires. There are genuinely touching moments that are unexpected without being cloying, seconds of meltdown that are genuinely disturbing… but they’re not there in enough quantity to sell the movie as a whole. Cruz manages to be charming if not convincing as an English-speaker, Diaz radiates psycho-bitchness in her frightening scenes, and Lee, again, is da dawg, which I’ll even state outside of parentheses. Also, Crowe’s trademark interesting use of music is in full effect, and John Toll’s photography is crisp and clean.
When it’s all said and done, the explanations of David’s head trip are unspooled by a heretofore minor character in ten minutes of explication…and inorganic explication kills. It kills like Arnold in COMMANDO, hacking off limbs with buzzsaw blades. If you’re going to play with an audience, you HAVE to make the payoff worthwhile, or at least consistent. One could argue that all the hints are present in the film, and they are, it’s just that the ending isn’t particularly good, and it isn’t entirely earned. Certainly not like, for example, MEMENTO.
It’s easy to blame Cruise, who seems to be trying a little harder than usual but not really succeeding in transmitting the madness and confusion of a man who doesn’t know up from down any longer. And I do blame him, but not as an actor. He and partner Paula Wagner helped produce this vehicle, and it’s rarely a good idea to let an actor who’s trying to project a very public image of controlled cool have that much power in a film, as it allows him to slack and rely on standby tics and tricks.Much of what we take away from movies comes from expectation, and having admittedly not seen the film upon which VANILLA SKY was based, Alejandro Amenebar’s ABRE LOS OJOS, letdown was almost inevitable. I’ll admit a desire to see this film again someday, to covet the moments where Crowe is on his game, and see if the thematic elements hold up in hindsight, to possibly reassess the whole. Sadly, I’ll probably see all Crowe’s other masterworks three times each before I decide to cruise through his SKY a second time.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4641&reviewer=21
originally posted: 12/13/01 22:22:49