A couple of months ago, I rented “Abre Los Ojos,” the 1997 Spanish film which was the basis for “Vanilla Sky”, and I was utterly blown away. So much that I just had to watch it again, right there and then. That doesn’t happen often, but here was a movie that was so complex and stimulating cinematically and thematically that I just had to take a second trip down that insane ride to process it. You would think that, having loved the Alejandro Amenabar original so much, its remake could only be a letdown. But this would be overlooking two things: 1) It’s not very fashionable to say, but I generally prefer American movies. I like Hollywood movie stars, I like not having to read subtitles, I like being able to catch pop culture references. 2) This is Cameron Crowe’s new film, silly! Remake or not, that’s a near-guarantee of a wonderful time at a movies. As I expected, “Vanilla Sky” is indeed easier a film to get into, with great use of pop/rock/electronic music, and the kind of irresistible romantic comedy moments only Crowe is able to pull off this well. And then, as the twists and turns grow more and more confusing and dark, Crowe is prompted into artistic territory we’ve never seen him explore.
Tom Cruise stars as David Aames, a hotshot New York magazine editor with everything a man could want: money, two spacious bachelor pads, a black Ferrari, movie star good looks, an overall glamorous lifestyle and countless gorgeous babes aching to jump his bones. We meet him as he’s about to celebrate his 33rd birthday, with a snazzy party of course, but there are a few wild cards. First, there’s growing tension between David and his best pal Brian (Jason Lee), who’s tired to see him treating carelessly women he would dream of being with. Speaking of which, the date he’s brought to the party, Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her “Abre los Ojos” role), seems to fit just right his idea of the dream girl. Unfortunately, despite much pleading by Brian for his friend not to, David has her in his phasers, always the seductive alpha male. Though this time, it’s more than plain lust ; he’s really amazed by this Sofia. Enough so that he turns away his fuck buddy Julie (Cameron Diaz)’s advances, shoving her into becoming a truly wild card.
Okay, enough with the summary. What I’ve described is only the very edge of this complex tale of obsession and despair, a mostly warm, fun edge which hardly prepares us for what’s to follow. Without going into specifics, “Vanilla Sky” unfolds twists upon twists, as David’s whole life and being are torn to pieces. True love is denied to him just as he finds it, his self-image is shattered, and that’s still only the beginning! This pretty much follows with what Amenabar’s film did, but the two pictures differ quite a bit in the execution. In “Abre los Ojos”, there was a certain bleakness in tone from the get go. Crowe’s movie, on the other hand, doesn’t hurry through the calm-before-the-storm set-up. For nearly an hour, this is not so different from, say, Crowe and Cruise’s “Jerry Maguire”. David and Sofia have this great night together, full of witty, flirtatious conversation and little moments of joy.
Cruise is at his charismatic best, and Cruz is more lovable than in any other movie I’ve seen her him, even “Abre los Ojos”. The two of them have palpable chemistry, I have no trouble believing that the sparks continued long after Crowe yelled “Cut!” Jason Lee is, not surprisingly, perfectly cast, having mastered the art of playing the smart-ass best friend in Kevin Smith’s flicks. The real surprise is Cameron Diaz. I’ve adored her ever since she first entered that bank in 1994’s “The Mask”. She then proved surprisingly game in “There’s Something About Mary”, and she revealed an edgier side of her acting in “Being John Malkovich” but this (for lack of a better term) psycho bitch turn is still quite shocking! I’ll never see her as a harmless blonde sweetie ever again! Cruise also does some of his most interesting acting when events spin out of control, showing a much darker side of himself. As in “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Magnolia”, I think the fact that we’re used to see him as such a successful stud makes his breakdown even more affecting.
Behind the camera, Crowe is as “on” as he’s never been. With the help of cinematographer John Toll and his wife Nancy Wilson doing the score, he crafts a constantly stimulating succession of sounds and visuals, sometimes to rivetingly surreal effect. Plenty of scenes are still haunting me, from the Times Square opening to the breathtaking finale, through countless other great moments. And what about the soundtrack! A former Rolling Stone writer, Crowe always puts together bitching soundtracks for his movies. Think of the use of “In Your Eyes” in “Say Anything”, of “Free falling” in “Jerry Maguire”, the Seattle grunge in “Singles”, or the Led Zeppelin tunes in “Almost Famous”. Now in “Vanilla Sky”, we can hear such great artists as Radiohead, REM, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, all used to near perfection. I mean, some will disagree, but I found the “Good Vibrations” music cue just priceless, I had “Solsbury Hill” caught in my head for the whole day and even Joan Osborne’s “One of us” took on creepy undertones!
Like the original, “Vanilla Sky” evokes “Phantom of the Opera”, “Vertigo”, and Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction writings, among many other influences. It explores some very intriguing territory, which will confuse the hell out of a lot of people, but give it time, this isn’t “Mulholland Drive”, there is a point and some sense to make off it all in the end. Lynch fans might argue that it’s better to leave things unexplained than to tie everything up, but in this particular case, I thought the exposition served its purpose, and as delivered by Noah Taylor (“Tech support!”) and Tilda Swinton, it doesn’t feel tedious. And then, the movie reaches a payoff even more satisfying than the original. To reverse one of the film’s leitmotiv, since you got more into the sweet early scenes, the sour elements hit even harder, and when you don’t expect it no more, “sweetness follows” and you leave the theatre still on a high, wondering what it is that would make you most happy.