Worth A Look: 25.96%
Pretty Bad: 14.1%
Total Crap: 9.94%
16 reviews, 216 user ratings
by Collin Souter
I didn’t like Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” the first time I saw it. The characters didn’t interest me much, the soundtrack (a lot of the time) felt like overkill and there seemed to be too many Crowe-isms. You know the Crowe-ism: Characters meet, have chemistry, exchange catch-phrases, argue pop culture and repeat the catch-phrase at the end as the romance comes to a close. Hardly the ideal ingredients for a thought-heavy paranoia thriller. I felt frustrated. Moments of sheer brilliance seemed lost amidst the director’s quirks and a character, because he had everything he wanted, I didn’t care about. To make matters worse, I walked out absolutely baffled. Yet, I opened my eyes the next morning compelled to watch it again, remembering that one of my Top 5 favorite films of all time, “Brazil,” garnered a similar reaction in its day.Two days later, I saw a completely different film. More layers opened up. The characters grew on me. With the benefit of a first screening, their motivations made more sense. I also liked the ominous soundtrack infinitely more. It seemed to have more of a place this time around, instead of the feeling that first came the mix tape, then the movie. I also discovered a film of high aspirations and moral ideals, a film that looks to warp our minds while making appropriate statements about contemporary misogyny, materialism and vanity.
"Everything in its right place."
The movie stars Tom Cruise, an actor hell-bent on taking chances with his image, as David Aames, head of the Maxim-like magazine “Rise.” He has the Board of Directors (a.k.a. The Seven Dwarfs), his all-but-impressed best friend Brian (Jason Lee) and even Steven Spielberg falling at his feet. He has it all. He even has a lovely, blonde, though slightly obsessive, plaything named Julie (Cameron Diaz). One night, at his own birthday party, David sets his sights on Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and feels something oddly alien to him: Attraction based on respect. David likes Sofia so much, he delays the thought of sleeping with her until he can no longer hold out. For now, a kiss will do.
Sparks fly and soon David has his cake and gets to eat it too. He has the girl who loves him for his sensitive mind and Julie, the stalker/worshipper who feels shunned. One morning, Julie confronts David with one of those “You never called me” moments. We can see that David sort of enjoys this idea that he has two women fawning over him. But the fact is, he never called Julie back. With a nice-girl routine, Julie invites David in her car for a ride. Soon, the polite conversation turns to an interrogation so dangerous, even a masked “I love you” couldn’t save his soul. From there, David’s life changes tone and circumstance, as does the film. All the rules change.
Throughout this first half, David gives us a somewhat muffled narration. Everything, we learn early on, happened long ago. Now, David sits in a prison cell wearing a facemask not unlike Cruise’s disguise piece in “Eyes Wide Shut.” He tells everything to McCabe (Kurt Russell), a psychiatrist who wants to find out if David can shed any light on the root of the murder for which he has been accused. Who, we wonder, did he murder? Julie? Sofia? Anyone? Did it even happen?
To go any further would be futile. For those who haven’t seen the film, any further explanation of the plot will seem as though I just opened up the textbook on Sex and Its Relation to the Subconscious. The movie certainly has a lot on its mind and it wants the viewer to leave the theater thinking it through. I’m not 100% sure I have it all figured out. Some pieces have yet to be perfectly mended together. But the skill with which the movie expounds upon issues of love, perception, materialism and consequences had me spellbound (again, on second viewing).
At first, it bothered the hell out of me that Cruise and Crowe would re-team to create one of the world’s most boring characters. Why should we care about a guy who has everything? Because he might lose it? He doesn’t exactly come off as a total jerk either, so we don’t exactly want him to get his just-desserts. We have a film void of a hero and a villain. Upon second viewing, I realized, Cruise’s character merely serves as a model of the ultimate male fantasy where women exist as Madonna’s and Whores, with nothing in between, and every male figure wishes they could be you. You have a fast car, which renders you invincible, top of the line electronics, and no pesky parents to tell you what to do. You run a magazine with hot women on the covers. And, to top it all off, you look like Tom Cruise. We can’t exactly relate to this, can we?
Yet we all believe that this person exists somewhere out there in the world. Here, we get to know the subconscious of such a character a little too well. The subconscious, a character later tells us, can be a tricky thing. It can rule over us when we least expect it, and it can make our lives miserable when we don’t even know it. Near the beginning of the film, David states that 99% of all questions can be answered with one word: Money. Would this same character claim money as the root of all evil? When you think about the man in the world rich enough to have himself cryogenically frozen so that he may live in an artificial subconscious where he exists as ruler of his domain, perhaps money does figure into it. The subconscious, the movie suggests, can either be God’s ultimate glitch or best practical joke, depending on how you look at it. Beneath this rich male fantasy lurks a hurt and vengeful woman who won’t stand for it any longer. Asleep or awake, dead or alive, there will always be consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, here. This movie doesn’t aspire to be a pseudo-feminist statement or a 2-hour and 15-minute bashing of the male mind-set. Crowe wants us to think about why we love those we love and about our selfish desires. Sure, you’ll be thinking about other things upon leaving the theater. In fact, you probably won’t even get to these issues until maybe your third or fourth viewing. I’m just speculating myself, here. I’m basically going down the long list of issues this movie deals with and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.
Cruise continues his run of interesting and daring performances (outside the “Mission: Impossible” contractual obligations). Here, even beneath the mask, we can feel his desperation and bitterness. We don’t always sympathize with him, but he still has us long after ‘hello.’ Cruz seems to be improving, but she doesn’t light quite the same fire Renee Zellweger did in the last Cruise/Crowe effort, “Jerry Maguire.” Diaz, the blonde, has more fun with her role as Cruse’s sex buddy out to really nail him. And Kurt Russell’s nice performance gains more notice upon second viewing. And when have you ever not liked Jason Lee?
Crowe has taken quite a leap of faith with this project. His technical skills have matured in unexpected ways over his past two films. As he did with “Almost Famous,” he continues to use pop songs to advance narrative in ways that would make Martin Scorsese mutter, “Why didn’t I think of that?” His choice of songs had me thinking, “Hey, this guy made a movie using my record collection.” (Radiohead, R.E.M., Spiritualized, Bob Dylan, U2, Beach Boys and The Monkees make the most memorable sonic cameos.) I’m guessing Crowe probably loves this part of the creative process the most, as well he should.Many reviewers have said this material doesn’t suit Crowe’s sensibilities, that he’s in way over his head. I disagree. I think he got a lot out of his system with “Almost Famous” and would now like to be known as something other than Master of the Catchphrase. He took a great chance in writing a script in a way that, normally, doesn’t make sense.
They laughed at Jules Verne, too.
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originally posted: 12/17/01 16:56:30