Vanilla Sky is a movie so far outside Cameron Crowe's comfort zone that you almost want to applaud him just for trying to make it. His career has been marked by warm, humorous, sentimental films with generous helpings of melancholy romance – some of them wonderful (Say Anything, Almost Famous), some of them clunky (Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo), but all of them undeniably within the confines of Crowe's distinctive cinematic voice. Vanilla Sky (a 2001 remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes) is something entirely different: a cold, complex erotic thriller with strong sci-fi/fantasy undertones. It's too shaggy and a large part of me thinks the ending is a junk pile of sci-fi hooey, but... it has its moments.
The film also represents an atypical outing for star Tom Cruise, who usually works so hard to preserve his image as cinema's most resilient action hero. I've often thought of Vanilla Sky as part of the most compelling chapter of Cruise's career – a brief but fascinating period in which he decided to make a handful of serious, challenging movies aimed at grown-ups. While Vanilla Sky doesn't approach the greatness of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia or Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise is consistently good in all three. In those three movies, we see a version of Cruise that is human, vulnerable, frightened and real. I like the guy as an action star – he's a real-deal movie star who knows how to maintain his brand – but this is a striking demonstration of just how good he can be.
The early scenes suggest that we're watching a familiar Cruise character. David Aames is a charming, wealthy, commitment-phobic publisher who drives fast cars, lives in a swanky apartment and enjoys no-strings-attached sex with A-list actress Julianna Gianna (Cameron Diaz, Being John Malkovich). You know, the sort of character who's just begging to be taught a lesson about The Important Things in Life. When David meets the gorgeous Sofia (Penelope Cruz, Volver), he begins to think that he might be falling in love for the first time. Alas, it turns out that Julianna has a nasty jealous streak, which leads her to make an impulsive decision with permanent consequences.
All of this material plays out as a sort of extended flashback, as the beginning of the movie informs us that David now has horrible facial scars, is charged with murder and is being held in a mental institution until his psychiatrist (a gently appealing Kurt Russell, Escape from New York) can make a determination on the state of David's mental health. David's memories occasionally get fuzzy, as he confuses who's who and struggles to sort through what actually happened. As a result, we're left with a lot of mysteries to solve. Was there actually a murder? If so, was the victim the person David thinks it was? Is he being set up by the jealous board members at his company? Is this all part of some vast conspiracy? Are those scars real? Is this all just a bad dream? The film gives you clear answers, but leaves room for doubt about the trustworthiness of the person delivering them.
Crowe has never been a particularly economical filmmaker – his movies are free-flowing jam sessions, not meticulously-constructed studio arrangements – and one can't help but wish that Vanilla Sky had a bit less of his casual looseness. Scenes seem to linger for the sake of letting a cool soundtrack cue play a little longer, and the relationships between Cruise/Diaz (cocky/crazy) and Cruise/Cruz (lovestruck/lovestruck) lack the depth they need to make the film compelling as a romance. The first half of the movie is so slack that many viewers may lose interest before they realize that Crowe has a few tricks up his sleeve. There's more going on beneath the surface of these scenes than we initially realize, but it still takes too long for the film to introduce its loopy sci-fi elements (the details of which I won't spoil).
Vanilla Sky is certainly more interesting in its bonkers second half, if not dramatically better. You sense the feverish inspiration Crowe must have felt when he was assembling these scenes – the movie is trying so hard to blow the minds of its viewers – but there's not a lot of coherence in the fantastical ideas at the plot's core, and not a lot of insight in the emotional truths the film seeks to deliver. People who have everything can still feel empty inside? Who knew? The third act has one of those grandiose sci-fi explanations that re-contextualizes everything we've seen and generously reveals a host of hidden meanings in early moments (it's delivered by actor Noah Taylor, playing a character who might as well be named Revelatory Monologue Guy), but there's a curious feeling of disappointment that follows: “Oh. That's it?”
The film is a failure, but an interesting failure. Cruise is pouring everything he's got into the performance, and demonstrates a willingness to be both grotesquely unlikable and pitiably helpless. Crowe's pop culture fetishes rear their heads in a variety of enjoyably unexpected ways, and it's hard to complain about most of his soundtrack selections (Radiohead, The Beach Boys, Peter Gabriel, Sigur Ros, R.E.M. and Bob Dylan are all present, as is a quirky end credits song from Paul McCartney). It's exciting to see the way the film leaps so aggressively into arthouse insanity, even if the dive is a clumsy one. It's also a product of a recent (but now seemingly bygone) time when you could get a decent budget for just about anything if you had a big star like Cruise at your disposal. Try convincing a studio to spend $70 million on a project like this one now. We need more movies like Vanilla Sky, even if we don't really need Vanilla Sky.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 136 minutes
Release Year: 2001