Beneath the hazy, mystifying layers of Vanilla Sky lies a remarkable Tom Cruise performance -- one that, to a great extent, takes place beneath a makeup artist's piled-on scars and a costumer's blank "prosthetic" mask. As David Aames, hipster publisher of Maxim-like magazines, Cruise plays a lothario so vain, he plucks out a single gray hair with tweezers kept in a wooden box by the sink. David lives in a glam world of catered lunches and lavish parties, hosted in an apartment that seems to spread over an entire brownstone's floor: John Coltrane, as hologram, provides the musical entertainment; Steven Spielberg drops by to offer well wishes; Joni Mitchell and Robert Rauschenberg paintings adorn the walls; Pete Townshend's smashed-up guitar lies behind Plexiglas. David's often reminded, and often acknowledges, that he is "living the dream"; just as often he is told, "Open your eyes." It's more than the title of the 1997 film upon which Vanilla Sky is based, almost note for note; it's a suggestion, an order -- words of wisdom proffered to a man about to fill the void of his freewheelin' life with suicidal women, disfiguring car crashes, homicide charges, a prison cell, a paternal psychiatrist, and perhaps, the promise of eternal life as a block of human ice.
After sweating out his rock-journalism past in last year's Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe has chosen to remake Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos, a film suggested to him by Cruise. No doubt the actor saw in it familiar themes he and Crowe explored back in Jerry Maguire: the ruin and rebirth of the shallow man, the destruction and resurrection of an empty life built upon meaningless totems.
Vanilla Sky almost takes place deep inside the subconscious of Jerry Maguire, where reality and make-believe are interchangeable. Nothing in Vanilla Sky is as it seems. At the beginning, David wakes up in a dream where he, the cheerful narcissist, is the sole inhabitant of Manhattan Island. It's his ultimate fantasy, perhaps, but also his greatest fear -- to be alone, without anyone to admire him. He needs people, their attention and affection. But just as easily does he discard them, flaunting one would-be lover and his best friend's date, Sofia (Penelope Cruz, star of the original), in front of a longtime fuck buddy, Julie (Cameron Diaz), during one of his star-studded soirees. Eventually, such casual disregard for Julie -- and his dear pal Brian (Jason Lee), whose novel David is financing -- leads to inevitable tragedy: Julie beckons David into her car, solely to plunge it off a bridge and into a brick wall, leaving him disfigured and her dead.
Or is she? And is David truly scarred, or is the mutilation in his mind and not on his face? And does Sofia exist, or is she a figment of his imagination? The film is less a narrative than a puzzle to assemble and reassemble every few minutes; one minute, the handsome David is discussing dreams with friends; the next, he's behind a mask and sitting in a cell with McCabe (Kurt Russell), the psychiatrist who informs David he's been imprisoned on a murder charge. Vanilla Sky leaps willy-nilly through time and space; we're often not sure where David is or who David is -- a madman, maybe, or just a rich dude with blood on his hands. Cruise plays it just right: He's as exasperated as we are, always a second away from turning a smirk into a scream.
But only the blind could miss the inevitable ending, which is hinted at so often, it's as though Crowe is afraid we'll stop caring if we're not being spoon-fed enough information, and that's Vanilla Sky's central flaw. It wants to be weird, but it's terrified of being too bizarre. Every time someone turns on a television set, there's but one thing on the screen -- the inventor of something called Life Extension, a cryogenic project that offers "eternal life." Round about the time Benny, a once-frozen dog thawed out as proof of the great experiment, shows up on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, the audience is three steps ahead. We wait only for a revelation that, by the time it arrives, feels predictable and warmed-over.
Though the film is said to slavishly mirror Amenábar's original (I've purposely avoided it, to keep from playing compare-and-contrast), Crowe imbues his take with his distinct sensibilities, from the rock-crit-approved mix-tape soundtrack to the publishing-world setting. But he doesn't assume you're smart enough to keep pace. He gives us no credit, no room for our own interpretations or imaginations. And for an audience, that's a bit of a nightmare.
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