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Vanilla Sky   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Cameron Crowe (based on the film Abre Los Ojos written by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall, Tilda Swinton.

Review by Rob Vaux

It had to happen. We knew it was coming, even as we reveled in the man's victories. Despite his sterling track record, despite solid film after solid film, the possibility was always there. Sooner or later, Cameron Crowe was going to drop the ball. And now that it's here, it's almost a relief. We won't have to wait, wondering when it will come. Vanilla Sky isn't the worst film ever made, but it's certainly a big step down for a director who can do a lot better.

Based on a Spanish film called Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), Vanilla Sky's surreal, dreamlike atmosphere remains more confusing than haunting, more artificial than enlightening. At times Crowe's own tendencies foul up the proceedings, but mostly the fault lies with misplaced energies. It also lies with Tom Cruise, whose uneven performance is supposed to anchor the film. As David Aames, a publishing magnate living a near-perfect life, Cruise begins with the sort of effortless charm he brings to nearly all his projects. He meets the charming Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz), an acquaintance of his best friend (Jason Lee), and the film looks to deliver another warm romantic drama in the vein of Say Anything. Then the roof caves in, both dramatically and performance-wise. An obsessive ex-lover (Cameron Diaz) takes David for a ride that ends with a spectacular crash off a New York bridge. The former golden boy ends up with a disfigured face and finds his world crumbling beneath him.

That's where the trouble begins. Cruise's disfigurement makeup is very effective, but he uses it as an excuse to leap into some truly embarrassing scene-chewing. His bulgy-eyed hysterics eventually let up, but not before a 20-minute period that might stand as a career low. He gets little support from Cruz, for whom the term "vanilla" seems tailor-made. Never has an actor been less at home with Crowe's style of romantic banter, and the actress apparently mistakes somnambulism for genuine emotional depth. You have to do more than just stand around and look pretty, dear.

The rest of the film dips as well, though not as disastrously as the lead performances. A sense of surrealism, always lingering over David's life, pumps into overdrive following the accident. Dreams merge into reality, scenes lapping over each other like a repeating tape loop. There is a murder, but no murder, a lover lost but not lost. David tries vainly to fight his way through the confusion, but his efforts only make the world spin more wildly about him. Crowe's polished professionalism serves him well here, and Vanilla Sky details David's odyssey with a lot of verve. From the title phenomenon looming over the cityscape to the quotable dialogue and a great soundtrack, nothing ever feels awkward or ill-conceived.

That, unfortunately, is part of the problem. The surreal circumstances suggest a need for something darker: a haunting creepiness similar to Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Yet Crowe directs it all with a curious lack of urgency, infusing sweetness and light into what feels like a nightmare. It looks good, but without a proper drive -- to unravel the mystery, to wake up, to make sense of what's going on -- it's hard to really care. Combined with the leads, it throws Vanilla Sky fatally off its mark.

Some respite comes from some strong supporting performances: the exquisite Diaz, stalwart Lee, and an impressive turn from Kurt Russell as Aames' psychologist. Crowe also retains his knack for screenwriting, and comes up with some terrific give-and-take in the midst of it all. The pacing keeps things moving, and for a 140-minute film, it flows pretty easily. That doesn't give us a reason to pay attention, however, and Vanilla Sky demands a more disciplined approach than the filmmakers bring. Without stronger leads or a proper sense of focus, it simply can't connect. One suspects that the original -- directed by Alejandro Amenabar, who helmed this summer's The Others -- provides a much better take on the same material.

Crowe is a gifted director, and he should rebound from this pretty easily, but his efforts to file the edges off this story leave us with little desire to work through it. The important question isn't "What's going on?" but "Why should we care?" Vanilla Sky, unfortunately, can't come up with an answer.

Review published 12.17.2001.

For another opinion, read Jeremiah Kipp's review.

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