Stars Out Of Orbit
Crowe and Cruise Aim High and Fall Short in 'Vanilla Sky'
By Patrick Reed

Tom Cruz?

Writer-director Cameron Crowe has become well-known and justly appreciated for several achievements over the past twenty years, but crafting complex psychological thrillers is not one of them. Heavy romance mixed with light social satire is his calling card: think of the dead-on approximation of suburban teenage life in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), Crowe's screenwriting debut, as well as the sympathetic portrait of the emergent Seattle grunge scene in Singles (1992), and the autobiographical, rose-colored reminiscence of the classic rock era in last year's Almost Famous, both which he wrote and directed. 1989's Say Anything and Jerry Maguire (1996) also probe matters of the heart, and looking back on Crowe's career, it's always this grand "sex/freedom vs. love/commitment" theme that sticks with you - remember the look on Jennifer Jason Leigh's face after giving her virginity to a scumbag in Fast Times, John Cusack holding the boom box high at dawn in Say Anything, Tom Cruise cooing "You complete me" in Maguire, and so on. Crowe-a-holics will be glad to know that his latest picture, Vanilla Sky, delves right back into familiar subject matter, and goes deeper than ever before. On the other hand, Crowe's treatment is something new entirely.

Vanilla Sky is a truly ambitious undertaking, a remake of - horror of horrors, Hollywood! - a foreign film. Open Your Eyes (1997), directed and co-written by Spain's Alejandro Amenábar, gained enough exposure Stateside to capture the attention of Tom Cruise, who optioned the remake rights. Co-producer Cruise called on his Jerry Maguire amigo to direct, even though the storyline reads more like late-period Hitchcock: super-masculine millionaire falls in love, loses his looks, and then apparently loses his mind after being arrested for murder. Give Crowe credit for moving beyond his comfortable confines - even though his adapted screenplay for Vanilla Sky is sprinkled with plenty of his trademark witty dialogue and pop-culture references (François Truffaut and Bob Dylan figure prominently), this is often dark stuff, and Cameron Crowe hasn't done dark before.

The film's first third is compelling. Cruise is Manhattan publishing heir David Aames, whose everyday life is supposedly every man's fantasy: Central Park West address, vintage Jaguar, effortless job, wealth galore, and an endless succession of beautiful women to sleep with, the latest flavor being the trashily sexy Julie (Cameron Diaz). It isn't long, however, before this hedonistic wonderland is revealed to be past tense for David, who, imprisoned and wearing an eerie mask, is being interrogated by Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell) as part of a murder investigation. David's memory flashes back to his first meeting with Sofia (Penélope Cruz, reprising her role from Open Your Eyes), a financially-struggling, absolutely entrancing dancer who sees right through David's shallow-playboy pose and offers him a glimpse of another, rarefied existence. Their brief one-night encounter shimmers with romantic longing, but the next morning David foolishly succumbs to Julie's advances and is severely disfigured in a car accident that kills another person. With David's mask and the murder charge explained, Vanilla Sky's narrative structure is seemingly resolved; everything's up to speed, and we're in familiar sex vs. love territory, with David and Sofia set up to overcome all obstacles. In fact, the craziness is only beginning.

Crowe handles David Aames' disintegration shakily as the film progresses; there are drawn-out moments of intense self-loathing and regret, and then sped-up sequences that attempt to reintroduce romantic bliss, as well as account for both leaps of logic in David's behavior and changes in his appearance. The effect is undoubtedly intentional - we are to question, as David eventually does, whether he is living in reality or in some cruel chamber of his subconscious - but eventually the shifting temporality becomes tiresome, and a late introduction of a sci-fi element in the plot is unnecessary. Despite its shortcomings, Vanilla Sky is interesting enough to qualify as a "noble failure" in the vein of Steven Spielberg's recent A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. This film's plot twists and jarring emotional conflicts would seem better suited for someone like The Sixth Sense's M. Night Shyamalan, or even Amenábar, who made his American-film debut with last summer's sleeper hit The Others - still, although Cameron Crowe overextends his abilities, in time this flawed effort may be re-appraised as the genesis of a new creative direction for him. Finally, two views on Cruise: Vanilla Sky's numerous thinly-veiled references to both his mega-movie past and his concurrent career as primo tabloid fodder make it often seem more like a referendum on Tom Cruise's celebrity than an absorbing drama but viewed more charitably, this picture can also be grouped alongside Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Magnolia (1999) as refreshing, challenging exceptions to the Top Gun's normal blockbuster routine.