Vanilla Sky (2001)

2001, Paramount. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?D
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -2
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults*

External Ratings

MPAA ?R USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Nonmarital affairs with a few depictions of simulated sex; some vulgar and profane language; suicidal and homicidal acts and themes.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Like puzzle movies from Memento to Fight Club, Vanilla Sky is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The problem is, the mystery and the enigma are in one movie, and the riddle’s in an entirely different movie — in fact, in an entirely different genre of movies.

I don’t want to give away any particulars, but just imagine how it would be if, at the climax of the ghost story The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment suddenly turned out to be a boy robot, like his character from A. I. Or suppose that, in the last act of the noirish thriller The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey abruptly explained that he was an extraterrestrial beaming back to his home planet, the way he did, maybe, in K-PAX.

Now, you can have a sci-fi movie in which Haley Joel Osment plays a robot. What you can’t do is suddenly bring human-like robots into the end of a ghost story in which the existence of that kind of technology hasn’t been established. And you can have Kevin Spacey claim to be from another planet, but not in the last reel of what had until then looked like a solidly earthbound crime thriller.

Similarly, when we at last learn what’s "really" going on in Vanilla Sky, we realize that director Cameron Crowe hasn’t been playing fair. He kept us guessing, not by honorable misdirection and red herrings, but by neglecting to establish the ground rules of his universe.

All right, so it’s clever. I grant that. And there are "hints" and "clues"... after a fashion. I even noticed a couple of the visual cues — and took them for Crowe being arty with his film. It didn’t occur to me that they were meant to be plot points. As a result, the explanatory flashbacks at the film’s end brought none of the satisfying sense of discovery that came from revisiting key scenes at the end of The Sixth Sense.

Starring Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz, Vanilla Sky is a remake of the hit Spanish film Abre los ojos ("Open Your Eyes"), directed by Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) and also costarring Penélope Cruz (but not Tom Cruise). I haven’t seen Abre los ojos, but word is that it’s more ambiguous and potentially confusing than this English-language remake.

Perhaps there simply was no straightforward solution to the mysteries of Abre los ojos; and Crowe, in order to avoid alienating mainstream American audiences, was driven to tack on an ending that nominally "explained" everything. But the "explanation" he chose is of the sort that could just as easily be tacked onto almost any movie — and would be just about as unsatisfying.

The plot: Tom Cruise plays David Aames, bohemian heir of a New York publishing magnate who’s inherited his father’s fortune and controlling stock in the company, much to the dismay of the disapproving board members ("the Seven Dwarfs," David calls them).

He sleeps casually with Julie (Cameron Diaz), who at first seems the quintessential playmate, but gradually begins to reveal an obsessive, possessive side that drives the soulless David to look elsewhere. At a party, for reasons that never become quite clear to the audience, he becomes entranced by Sofia (Cruz), who is not interesting, charming, or deep, though she does have a cute Spanish accent.

"I believe," Sofia at one point confesses, "that good things will happen to you if you’re a good person with a good attitude." Later she says, "I’ll tell you in another life, when we are both cats." David thinks this is the wittiest thing he’s ever heard. Of course, he’s drunk at the time.

Whatever may have happened offscreen between Cruise and Cruz, onscreen their characters have no chemistry, no sense of electric attraction. Perhaps David is turned on by the fact that Sofia is dismissive of his geek-chic decor (his idea of cool is to have a busted stage guitar behind glass on his apartment wall).

I can understand David’s desire to get away from Julie, who, though played by Diaz with trademark irresistible winsomeness, has something scary under the beguiling surface. What I don’t get is someone capable of walking away from Cameron Diaz being ensnared by Penélope Cruz. Of course, in real life Tom Cruise walked away from Nicole Kidman for Penélope Cruz. There’s a weird life-imitating-art subtext here that didn’t help my enjoyment of the film. Nor did an extended bedroom scene combining violence and eroticism. Nor did the general unlikability of most of the characters, especially David.

Anyway, without getting too specific about details, David suffers a horrible accident, after which inexplicable things begin happening to him. He has terrible nightmares, and then it seems reality itself may be slipping away from him. Most disturbing of all, he finds himself jailed for a crime he’s sure he didn’t commit, talking to a government therapist (affably played by Kurt Russell) who wants to determine his competency to stand trial.

Is David losing his mind? Or could he be the victim of an elaborate conspiracy, orchestrated by his corporate rivals, the "Seven Dwarfs," in an effort to wrest control of his father’s publishing empire from him? Could it be, as David puts it, that "the ants are taking over the anthill"? (While we’re on the subject, who does David think is usually in charge of an anthill?) What’s actually going on here?

Now, after all that, suppose that in the end it were revealed that the real explanation was that Kurt Russell was a guardian angel guiding David through the judgment of his life. Or that Sofia was the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, still messing with the heads of powerful men after all these years.

Or suppose that the movie were to end the way it really does — followed by several other endings, all mutually incompatible, like the ones I’ve been suggesting — after which it was finally revealed that the entire movie was actually taking place in the imaginations of film-school students in a screenwriting class trying to come up with a wild end to an unfinished screenplay.

You see, there are some plot twists you can tack onto just about anything, if you really want to.

Darn. That was more effort than this movie was worth.

Tags: Science Fiction, Thriller

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