by Marc Kandel
Vanilla Sky is a very unlikely Sci-Fi film, wrapped in a character study, wrapped in a murder mystery, wrapped in a Tom Cruise vehicle (the latter being what the previews would lead you to believe), wrapped in a signature Cameron Crowe feel-good, celebration of life movie. To tell you the truth, I'm still wrestling with the thing. What I must ask myself is, would I recommend it to you, gentle reader?Vanilla Sky is the tale of poor lil' rich boy David Aames (Tom Cruise and his teeth doing a really great job with a tough character), who has it all and loses it all through a series of poor or at least careless choices (or manipulations) to the point where his life becomes a sick parody of its former pleasures, culminating in his imprisonment for murder. David goes from Adam in the garden to Job in the shitpile in 1.2 seconds. His privelleged, happy go lucky, want for nothing lifestyle is obliterated. His actions (or lack thereof) lead to disfigurment, lonlieness, and persecution- he cannot even trust his very reality, phasing in and out of a cruel blending of fractured memory, hallucination and his nightmare present imprisonment. The audience is placed in this jigsaw life through the eyes of Kurt Russell, who plays a criminal psychologist trying to find the reason for David's current state of misery and murder, and David himself, desperately trying to hold it together long enough to pull the flashbacks together to reach clarity. When the mystery is revealed, we find ourselves in an entirely different film than what we started with- and therein lies the brillance. And the frustration. Am I the only dullard out there that didn't see this one coming?
"Cameron Crowe nostalgia-fest meets Star Trek episode. Jesus."
In the beginning, David has everything; money, women, looks, wit; his New York penthouse/museum of "everything-you-have-always-wanted-but-will-never-have" alone may bring on feelings of inadequacy among the viewers out there- particularly if you are paying $2,000 a month for a cement block in Manhattan. This kid's got it so good he can afford to fuck and dismiss Cameron Diaz (a regimen I would prescribe on a daily basis if not for some repeatedly good turns in film when she's not vapidly wiggling around in Charlie's Angels Full Throttle) . David runs his deceased yet visually omnipresent father's publishing house with the Tom Cruise trademark smirk and head tilt and some wave of the hand management (not a criticism on Cruise- for this character it works). That the magazines are an amalgam of FHM, Maxim and Stuff leads one to believe that he's pretty much right on track with his lazy style of business, but the board of stuffy, elderly directors (aptly nicknamed the Seven Dwarves) see different.
David has one true childhood friend amid the sycophantic hangers-on, the likable, loyal Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), who naturally, Dave shits on under the guise of being charmingly irreverant- snagging every chick Lee brings into his radius, patronizing him constantly, and even putting him on the payroll to finance Lee's stillborn novel, just cuz he's a pal and every court needs its jester, despite the resentment it breeds. Oh yes, and David has women, oodles and oodles of women- today's favorite being a wild n' crazy Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz showing us that yes, you can have too much of a good thing), who can be a tad overbearing for poor Dave- after 4-times a night bedroom sessions, that is- what, you mean we can't cuddle? Yes, Julie evidently tries a bit too hard to please (and she's got crazy-eyes), so David shuffles her off in search of some more challenging footsy with Sofia Cerrano (Penelope Cruz), his aforementioned buddy Brian's date, who is evidently deeper than Julie (Diaz), cuz she won't put out on the first date and she's artsy and hip and stylishly poor. Oh, yes, and despite his obvious, licentious, patronizing, misunderstood asshole caricature behavior, she can still manage to see the inner nice guy. I would say "only in film," but then again we all know that's not true, so I'm willing to let that character judgement go. Now, do you have all that plot set-up down? Good.
After a wild party night where there are signs and portents aplenty that through David's lifestyle one or more people might be more than a bit pissed off with him, and upon leaving the studio apt. of Miss Cruz, David makes the mistake of getting into a car with Julie, who has blatantly followed him to his new date's place and practically camped out on her doorstep- not exactly someone you ride shotgun with, but hey, lets get in anyway. Cameron n' Tom's Village to Upper West Side tour goes awry right around 96th and Riverside, where Julie decides that life without David is just not worth living, and floors the car off an overpass, smashing the shit out of both of them in a devastating car/brick wall collision. Result: Diaz dead, Dave disfigured.
From here, a broken, disraught David sinks to the very depths of self-loathing and despair, driving away everyone who cares for him in a fugue of self-pity and distrust(were they part of a grand conspiracy to dethrone him?), and then miraculously, picks himself up and sets things right by taking control of all of the elements in his life- a major theme in the film, and a big clue to the great mystery. Sofia the Saint takes him back, warts and all, as long as he promises to be happy despite the marianas trench relocating to his face. Life is good again- everything is back the way it was at the beginning, including his picture perfect face after some mighty convenient miracle surgery. Too bad Dave's disfigurement appears to creep back at random moments in both dreams and waking life and Sophia has an annoying habit of suddenly transforming into a jeering, taunting, very much alive and nutso Julie Gianni- particularly during coitus. That's right folks- this man switches from Penelope Cruz to Cameron Diaz in the blink of an eye mid-fornication- a trick I would dearly love to enjoy and abuse. David does what comes naturally to any guy finding a psychotic slavering loon rather than his sweet, unbelieveably insightful girlfriend in his bed. I'll give you a hint- he's in prison for it. The real question is, who did he kill?
To go any further would be to give away the painstakingly orchestrated finale of the film, which is part of the whole reason for patiently sitting through this enigma in the first place. Some, perhaps many of you will be able to figure it all out from the many and varied clues Cameron Crowe deftly shuffles into the film through imagery, music, and a few overt hints, most of which, at the end, I found more fascinating than the characters themselves. Unfortunately, I am evidently not that quick, and had to wait until the finish to really applaud the cleverness at all. The movie plods on far longer than necessary through forced dialogue (The growing love plot between Cruz & Cruise had me examining pictures around my room after awhile) and some music montage scenes that really only reminded me that Cameron Crowe used to be in the rock n' roll business, and therefore knows how to put together a good soundtrack. But you know what? I kept watching. Something was juuuust interesting enough to stay with it.
I recognized more than a few elements common to a typical sci-fi plot, found in the best Zones, Limits and Treks, but where the details are thoroughly disguised under the director's artistic style and story, which mislead one into thinking this is an entirely different movie. Still, I was left with some disgruntlement- at myself for not seeing the obvious? Maybe, but I can admit when I'm wrong and still enjoy a film. No, I think my irritation came from the movie trying to be more important than it actually is, much like the lofty pretentions of Matrix Reloaded. Life analysis, endless personal insights from people I don't buy it from (beyond the standard hotness, I just can't see the big thing about Penelope Cruz), and the characters as well the audience constantly being asked "What makes us happy?" Well, that's not the type of question I'm gonna answer in the space of 2 + hours, so thanks for asking, food for thought, now stop banging me over the head with it.Man, this one was a tough call. Admirable for its scope (or is it?). Thought provoking (if you like wondering whether or not you liked the movie). Visually applaudable (You have to give it that). Annoying (Is Cameron Crowe masturbating on me or is this a visionary film?). In the end, I suppose any flick that leaves me with so many questions and wonderment does deserve a look. Or maybe you should just see a David Lynch film where the same is done, sans happy ending.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4641&reviewer=358
originally posted: 01/21/04 03:53:25