Beneath the hazy, mystifying layers of Vanilla Sky lies a remarkable Tom Cruise performance — one that, to a large 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 floor of a brownstone: 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; one of Pete Townshend’s smashed-up guitars 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. If Abre Los Ojos and Vanilla Sky are, as Crowe insisted last week during a press conference, “two brothers posing the same question from different directions,” then Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire are fraternal twins — one, a no-nonsense chum sporting an eternal smirk; the other, a beguiling, puzzling lad caught between dream and nightmare. Their themes are constant — as characters often remind, every passing minute offers a chance to turn one’s superficial life around — but their presentations are so disparate you’d never recognize them as kin.
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. With Radiohead’s haunting “Everything in Its Right Place” droning on the soundtrack, David zooms his Ferrari through a desolate, lit-up Times Square. 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 (Penélope 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 her right off a bridge and into a brick wall, leaving him disfigured and her dead.
Or is she? And is David truly scarred, his once-beautiful visage a mass of ground flesh, 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 one woman he might truly be able to love? 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 the revelation that, by the time it arrives, feels predictable and warmed-over, no matter the ambition of fusing sci-fi with melodrama.
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 (new R.E.M. and McCartney, old Dylan and Jeff Buckley) to the publishing-world setting (the man is forever working out his Jann Wenner demons).
But he doesn’t assume you’re smart enough to keep pace. One astonishing shot of Cruise and Cruz echoes, verbatim, the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; it’s a graceful, resonant evocation of a pop-culture past — a loving wink. But Crowe ruins the moment some 45 minutes later, when he explains the scene — and everything else that’s taken place, for that matter. He gives us no credit, no room for our own interpretations or imaginations. Crowe renders David’s dream (and its accompanying nightmare) so literally we can’t help but leave the theater feeling as though we’ve been lectured to, told how to feel and what to think. And for an audience, that’s a bit of a nightmare.