Vanilla Sky (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Vanilla Sky (the name refers to a painting by Monet) is the quirkily titled American remake of the 1997 Spanish language feature, Open Your Eyes. Like its predecessor, Vanilla Sky is a mind-bending excursion across genres - a warped fairy tale that dabbles in romance, mythology, horror, mystery, and science fiction. There are plenty of philosophical musings on the difference between dreams and reality, and numerous occasions in which the film dares us to tell them apart. Vanilla Sky gives new meaning to the familiar phrase from a children's song: "Life is but a dream."

For director Cameron Crowe, the man behind Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky represents a groundbreaking career move. Not only is this his initial foray into the much-maligned realm of remakes, but it's the first time he has performed without the safety net of being firmly rooted in pop culture elements. Crowe shows immense respect for his source material, but not the kind of slavish reverence lavished upon the book-to-movie conversion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Vanilla Sky is a faithful remake of Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes, but, like all good remakes, it can stand on its own and does not fade and discolor in the face of the original. Crowe has brought his own unique strengths to bear upon the material, staying very much in step with Open Your Eyes while adding some warmth and clarity that were not evident in the cooler, more ambiguous original. The Spanish-language film is the better version, but Vanilla Sky is a credible substitute for subtitle-phobic audiences.

David Aames (Tom Cruise) has the world in the palm of his hand. The majority stock owner of a big-time publishing firm, David has everything he wants - a great job with short hours, a spectacular Manhattan pad, and a gorgeous female pal named Julie (Cameron Diaz) who's willing to have sex with him whenever the urge hits (which seems to be fairly often). Then, one day, confirmed bachelor David meets Sofia (Penelope Cruz), and he suddenly discovers what love is. Unfortunately, David's blossoming relationship with Sofia fans Julie's jealousy. It seems that she doesn't share David's casual view of their sexual encounters. So, feeling hurt and betrayed, she invites David for a ride, then crashes her car, killing herself and badly injuring him. He survives, but is maimed and disfigured, and must wear a mask to hide the mass of scars and twisted flesh that comprises his once-handsome face. (With the mask on, he looks uncannily like Michael Myers, the psycho killer of the Halloween series.)

In many ways, the story is pure Twilight Zone, but Crowe's down-to-earth approach softens and grounds it, making the characters seem more genuine, even amidst the surreal setting. Crowe's use of music (one of the strengths of his previous efforts) - everything from the Beach Boys to Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" - enhances the mood, allowing Vanilla Sky to develop its own identity. In addition, the screenplay closes with a less evasive explanation of what has transpired. However, the changes are minor; this is not a case in which Hollywood has butchered the end of a foreign feature in the hope of boosting ticket sales.

Several of the principals are veterans of Crowe's behind-the-camera approach. Tom Cruise, previously in Jerry Maguire, brings along his boyish good looks. He plays David as a charismatic rogue - someone the audience is supposed to recognize as a bit of a scoundrel, but like nevertheless. Jason Lee, seen as the Stillwater lead singer in Almost Famous, is David's best friend, Brian. Noah Taylor, Stillwater's manager, plays the part of a mysterious stranger who frequently crosses David's path. Penelope Cruz, reprising the part of Sofia (which she also played in Open Your Eyes) displays a fair amount of chemistry with Cruise. Crowe was reportedly delighted that he was able to capture the two falling in love on camera. However, while there's definitely a spark, it doesn't seem any more potent than the one between Cruise and Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, and there was nothing going on between them off-screen. Cameron Diaz has no difficulty with a difficult part - not only must she portray the playful girlfriend and the demented, rejected lover, but she has to mimic Cruz during two key sequences. Finally, Kurt Russell plays the psychologist who befriends David and tries to help him unravel the mystery that makes him doubt his sanity.

Like Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky makes allusions to Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera. Crowe takes things one step further, incorporating references to music, film, and art. The movie poses questions about the boundary between reality and fantasy. Like David, the viewer sometimes has trouble differentiating one from the other. Crowe starts blurring this line early in the proceedings - the first scene offers the nightmarish tableau of David running through an entirely deserted Times Square (the logistics of filming this must have been enormous). In this era of virtual reality, we are asked to examine our own preferences - to continue facing the tribulations of a concrete life or to retreat into an artificial dreamscape.

In the end, Vanilla Sky answers all the questions it poses and wraps up most (if not all) of the dangling plot threads. However, while the explanations come in the final fifteen minutes, the most rewarding aspect of the film is the journey to that point - trying to outguess the script, enjoying the carefully constructed romance between David and Sofia (is anyone better than Crowe at telling a heartfelt love story?), and appreciating the details and nuances contributed by a director who knows what he's doing. The science fiction aspects of this movie may place Crowe in unfamiliar territory (he is clearly at his best when dealing with character interaction), but he rarely seems lost.

Vanilla Sky (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2001-12-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1