reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, December 13, 2001
After making a fortune with the crowd-pleasing date movie "Jerry McGuire," star Tom Cruise and writer-director Cameron Crowe reteam in the ambitious, dark, and difficult "Vanilla Sky." It's an erotic thriller in the mode of "Fatal Attraction" that morphs into a "Matrix"-style science fiction mystery, yet ends up touching on the old questions about life, death, heaven, hell, and purgatory in the tradition of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy:
To die, to sleep - To sleep - perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
Crowe has become one of the more interesting moralists in the arts today. His "R"-rated "Almost Famous" script about drug-addled rock stars and their groupies won both an Oscar and, more remarkably, raves from the born-again Christian press. Here he presents a vaguely Christian allegory about the price a man pays for the seemingly outdated sin of trifling with a young lady's affections.
Cruise, the luckiest man in Hollywood, is perfectly cast as the luckiest man in Manhattan, the handsome, energetic, rich, and powerful heir to a magazine publishing empire.
He wakes up next to gorgeous Cameron Diaz ("Charlie's Angels"), with whom he's been dallying as the mood strikes him. While assuring Cruise she hates the very idea of marriage, the obviously smitten lass looks like she'd rather be picking out names for their first five children. Cruise leaves, telling her he'll call, but refusing to say when.
He doesn't, however, call to invite her to his 33rd birthday party.
Diaz crashes his shindig anyway, but he's not interested. He's seen a stranger across a crowded room: a Spanish ballerina portrayed by Penélope Cruz.
After a string of duds, Cruz finally justifies Hollywood's hopes for her. Here she is sweet, feline, and adorable.
That she came with his best friend, a penniless novelist played by ex-pro skateboarder Jason Lee, means nothing to Cruise. He sweeps her away. They spend the night talking and resisting having sex. (Lovers are always more romantic on screen before consummation.) Do Cruise-Cruz have chemistry? More than an Exxon refinery.
He leaves Cruz's apartment at dawn, only to discover Diaz waiting in her car outside. Obviously, she's taking their intermittent affair a little more seriously than he is. Yet, when she switches modes from stalker to seductress and invites him to go for a ride, he's tempted. After all, he's been good all night with his new brunette true love; an hour being bad with his old blonde hot number would work off some of the tension.
"I thought it might be interesting to get into some of the aspects of casual sex and how people kind of playact at the casual part of that," Crowe noted. To enjoy a long career as a Lothario, a man must either break the hearts of the girls who fall in love with him, or be so bad in bed that they don't care that he never rings back. Cruise's character is not bad in bed.
So, Cruise makes his decision and gets in, with consequences he can't imagine.
The audience, in fact, not only can't imagine what's going to happen, but can't make sense of it while it is happening. In some scenes, Cruise is rapturously happy with Cruz. Yet, in others, he's a Phantom of the Opera-like loner with a broken face. Sometimes, he displays god-like powers, yet, for a god, he seems to spend way too much time locked up in jail wearing a creepy latex mask. What's going on?
To answer this, Crowe expands upon his source ("Open Your Eyes" by Spanish prodigy Alejandro Amenábar, director of "The Others") in two ways. He adds a wonderfully dense web of symbols and allusions that, if you saw the movie three or four times, would allow you to figure out The Secret for yourself.
"Vanilla Sky" is art in the sense of artifice, rather than of incandescent genius. Amenábar and Crowe each worked terribly hard to create a synthetic universe (or two) where every detail prefigures the ultimate revelation.
For example, golden boy Cruise and his envious but witty buddy almost die in a car crash. Afterwards, Lee gasps, "I thought I was going to die, so your life flashed before my eyes."
Cruise laughs and asks, "How was it?"
"Almost worth dying for."
Still, despite endless clues, I never saw it coming. So, for people like me, Crowe expanded Amenábar's ending to make it as methodically explanatory as the conclusion to Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." That's considerate of Crowe, but it's a rather flat way to conclude a strikingly allusive movie.
While "Vanilla Sky" is sure to annoy a lot of people, it's the first film since "Moulin Rouge" that I've wanted to see twice
Rated R for a sex scene, nudity (Cruz), and bad words.