Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vanilla Sky

When Cameron Crowe unleashed Vanilla Sky on unsuspecting audiences back in 2001, few were prepared for it, especially considering that it bore little resemblance to anything else in his ongoing tapestry of work. No doubt the phrase “From the director of Jerry Maguire” was bandied about at the time, but anyone expecting to be shown the money, instead showed up and saw heartbreak, pain and a jagged, dreamlike storyline. Is it possible that Vanilla Sky is director Crowe’s masterpiece? It’s probably unfair to say that it is, given that it's a remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos. But does that make Vanilla Sky any less of a movie, especially to someone who’s never seen the original? If nothing else, Crowe must be commended for cramming his pop culture stamp into every available crevice of the story. In doing so, he made it his own, while still being entirely true to the original concept, which is no mean feat in the world of Hollywood remakes.

Tom Cruise plays 33-year old David Aames, the heir to a powerful publishing empire. Here’s a guy who’s pretty much had everything handed to him his entire life; work must be pried out of him. He’s got looks, money, people waiting on him hand and foot, and he even manages to keep Cameron Diaz around as nothing more than a fuck buddy. When you can keep Cameron Diaz on that dubious a leash, you can probably have anything you want, on whatever terms you want. It’s difficult to like the grinning golden boy David for the first 45 minutes of the movie. He’s smug, successful, self-assured, good-looking - in a lot of ways, Aames is Tom Cruise, although it’s a stretch to say the actor and the character have much more in common than the obvious superficial similarities. (If nothing else, one can never say Cruise hasn't worked hard for his achievements.)

But then an ugly tragedy befalls David, and he emerges a changed man on nearly every level. His face is physically disfigured and his self worth is eroded. It’s at this point in the movie that you realize just how smart the entire concept really is, because what can be a braver move on the part of a filmmaker working with Cruise than to remove the actor’s famous smile? No matter what you may think of Aames for the first part of Vanilla Sky, you can’t help but feel for him at this point. Just as the tale looks to have become so dark that you simply want to look away, the clouds part and the sun begins shining again, due in no small part to Penélope Cruz’s Sofia, a character who provides the film with numerous bits of perfect dialogue, but perhaps none as profound as “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.” Vanilla Sky is a movie in constant states of turnaround, and there are even more shocking reveals further down the line. Who is the mysterious Ellie? What are the flash-forward scenes of Aames, covered in a strange mask, and talking to a prison psychiatrist (Kurt Russell), all about? What does a ubiquitous dog - who was frozen for three months and then brought back to life - have to do with everything?

Over the years, the movie hasn’t been given its proper due, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an often times uncomfortable viewing experience, but ultimately it reveals itself to be a life-affirming thing of beauty. The science fiction elements that crop up in the last 20 minutes are perhaps a little more convoluted than they need to be, and if one dissects the mechanics of the plot too thoroughly, it can be a frustrating experience. But to do so is the wrong way to watch this movie that’s all about emotion and ideas. I stopped trying to make perfect sense of it around the third viewing and accepted it on the terms on which it was reaching out to me. And it can and will work for you, too, provided you go in with an open mind and heart. Oh, and then there’s the soundtrack, which is most certainly the best of Crowe’s career: the perfect melding of movie and music, and a collection of tunes that I still frequently listen to nearly eight years after first picking up the CD. Finally there’s Cruise. This take-no-prisoners, emotionally-draining performance is easily one of his boldest, and it’s been the only one that’s required him to check his vanity at the door. That alone may mean that Crowe performed a minor miracle.

Watch this movie online at