by Rob Gonsalves
It feels a little odd to suggest that the first Cameron Crowe film not to have been pulled out of his own experience — or, indeed, even his own original idea — may be his best movie so far, but 'Vanilla Sky' takes risks that even his best prior movies ('Say Anything,' 'Singles,' 'Jerry Maguire,' and, for some fans, 'Almost Famous') don't get near.Crowe's strength, and occasionally his weakness, has been the preternatural kindness of his vision — the democratic insistence that everyone onscreen has merit, the refusal to make anyone look bad. Vanilla Sky, on the other hand, gives us the first complete bastard in the Crowe portfolio, and puts him front and center.
"Cameron Crowe's underrated redux of 'Abre Los Ojos.'"
David Aames is a late-period Tom Cruise character — cocky, arrogant, rich, catnip to the ladies. David refers to himself as "snowboarding through life," though snowboarding implies effort. Heir to a magazine publishing house, David drifts into the offices every day, amused by the shared joke that he's in charge (he got 51% of the company's control in his dad's will), though no one else is amused. He's not malicious, particularly, just heedless of anything but his own pleasure. This does not go over well with clingy women like Julie (Cameron Diaz), who wants to be more than an easy, responsibility-free "fuckbuddy" for David; she holds out the hope that he will fall in love with her, but she faces stiff competition from his mirror.
The mirror, in turn, loses out to the enchanting Sofia (Penelope Cruz), introduced to David by his best friend Brian (Jason Lee, in probably his finest "best friend" role yet, seething with barely-suppressed resentment) at David's lavish birthday party. Sofia is with Brian, but leaves with David, who abandons his own party to talk with her — just talk. It's clear he's smitten with her, mainly because, unlike Julie, she doesn't seem to need him — doesn't want anything from him. Crowe is careful to show us Brian and Julie (who crashes the party) getting drunk and shaking their heads over the thoughtlessness of their respective friend and lover, who is as innocently hurtful as a kitten who inadvertently scratches you while playing.
Some things happen. Those things take up the film's remaining 90 minutes, and I cannot disclose them; Crowe scrupulously follows the story he's remaking — 1997's Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) — which holds its many plot twists aloft as deftly as a plate-spinner. Disfigurement is on the menu; the mirror disappears. Julie leaves, then comes back. A psychiatrist (Kurt Russell, in fine regular-guy form despite his professorial specs) tries to get behind David's mask, symbolically and literally. Crowe brings in Tilda Swinton for one late scene and puts her behind a desk, where she transfixes us while not actually doing much of anything at all. In the kind of only-in-this-movie great balls-out moment I'll never forget, Tom Cruise whirls around an empty lobby having a nervous breakdown, screaming "Tech support! Tech support!" while "Good Vibrations" blares on the soundtrack.
Crowe riffs on Abre Los Ojos, keeping it fully intact as a narrative while bringing in his own obsessions — movies and music, the sight and sound of dreams. And Vanilla Sky is very much a dream movie, or at least preoccupied with the meaning (and seeming reality) of dreams. This, as well as the eager cooperation of Tom Cruise, links it with Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, also about a self-satisfied yuppie whose balloon gets popped by an unpredictable woman. Cruise isn't quite as soulful as Eduardo Noriega, who played the role in the original, but he gives David his own swaggering sense of entitlement — Cruise is building a large body of work in which he plays fatherless young roosters who become humbler and better people, except this film doesn't quite give him that opportunity. He has some wild moments, though — one of my favorites is when Sofia sweetly deflects one of David's questions with "I'll tell you in another life, when we come back as cats," and David reacts with simultaneous love (in his drunken state, this is the greatest thing he's ever heard) and rage (in his current state, this is the greatest woman he'll never have).
Crowe's Almost Famous, to me, felt overdeliberate and solicitous, as if he'd been chewing over the story his whole life (which, actually, he had) and sought to avoid hurting any of the film's real-life counterparts. Vanilla Sky doesn't come out of anything deeply personal for him — he's being a cover band here, playing the same notes, yet somehow making it his own. As always, he's attentive to the smallest details of friendship and romance, and here he also delivers his most gaudily cinematic work yet — his filmmaking has never felt this raw and alive before, from the gray despair of a prison cell to the red lust and thrum of a dance club.This is a whole new palette for Crowe, and his excitement rubs off on us. It's a nasty, vibrant piece of work; Crowe's filmmaking mentor Billy Wilder — often a wonderfully nasty piece of work himself, as anyone who's seen 'Sunset Blvd.' can attest — would've been proud.
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originally posted: 02/03/07 11:15:45