Imagine if someone remade "The Others," this year's most incredibly chilling haunted-house movie starring Nicole Kidman, but rewrote it to include Casper the Friendly Ghost. That should give you a pretty good idea what Cameron Crowe has done with "Vanilla Sky."
In 1997, Alejandro Amenabar -- writer and director of "The Others" -- created a stunning psychological thriller called "Open Your Eyes." It was about a rich, young lothario whose mind becomes a dangerous jumble of dreams, fantasies and delusions when he is horribly disfigured in a car crash the day after getting his first taste of real love.
Filled with ingenious twists and powerful emotions, it was a stirring brain-bender that could give you the tingles at any given moment.
Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous," "Jerry Maguire") fell in love with "Open Your Eyes," bought the remake rights, borrowed the leading lady (Penelope Cruz stars in both films) and proceeded to turn it into a fanciful feel-good flick.
"Vanilla Sky" doesn't give you the tingles; it just tickles a little.
Cruise plays David Aames, a frivolous 33-year-old playboy who inherited a publishing empire from his father and has had only casual girlfriends his whole life. One of them is Julie (Cameron Diaz), an unstable knockout who has become obsessed with David after they spent a couple nights together.
Then at his 34th birthday party David meets sultry, sweet-hearted Sofia (Cruz) and becomes instantly smitten -- even though she arrived on the arm of his romantically frustrated best friend (Jason Lee). A charmingly romantic night of flirting is spent at Sofia's apartment, then when David leaves in the morning, he finds Julie waiting for him. He gets in her car, trying to play it cool, and she drives them off a bridge at 80 mph.
Crowe lingers silently on the wreckage in what is the last truly goose-pimply moment in the movie, before defusing most of the story's emotional import and spiraling shocks (including what should be a startling murder scene) with his particular brand of well-written but innocuous humor and with several wildly contrary, weightless pop tunes on the soundtrack.
Narrating from his prison cell as he's being psychoanalyzed for his murder trial (we know he's in jail but we don't know who's dead yet), David wears a rubbery prosthetic face mask to hide his mangled face as he recalls the events after the accident to his court-appointed shrink (Kurt Russell).
He tells of his misery at seeing Sofia distance herself from him, more because of the psychological toll the accident had taken on his personality than because of his disquieting visage. But then the same plastic surgeons that told him his was a lost case suddenly come back with a miraculous new reconstructive surgery proposal. Soon David got his life and Sofia back.
Or did he?
David's mind begins to unravel and soon he's seeing his scars in the mirror again, and Julie -- not Sofia -- in his bed. None of this tale sits well with the shrink, who insists that Julie is dead and David's face is fine, if he would just remove the mask and look for himself.
This is about the point in "Open Your Eyes" where Amenabar really pulls the rug out from under you. But in "Vanilla Sky," both the story and the clues to the movie's twists are over-simplified. Meanwhile, the flashy production design (holograms, vintage Ferraris, desks that turn into view screens) hints that maybe Crowe had too much money to play with and it muted his creativity.
This sometimes shot-for-shot "cover version," as Crowe has called it, does feature a talented cast that is clearly dedicated to the project heart and soul. Penelope Cruz gives her first really good English language performance (although she's better in the Spanish version). "Sky" also boasts Crowe's always-catchy dialogue ("She looks like the saddest girl to ever hold a martini.") and does flesh out the characters' lives in a way "Open Your Eyes" did not.
But the director's habitually blithe, soft-serve cinematic style -- which lent an innocent charm to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in "Almost Famous" -- holds this movie back with its lack of gripping tension, emotional depth and psychological resonance.
For someone who hasn't been exposed to the brilliance of "Open Your Eyes," this picture may not be a disappointment -- even though its many surprises are so leisurely and so telegraphed that they almost fail to startle at all. But to those people I say, think of what "The Others" might have been like had Cameron Crowe been behind the camera, then stay home and rent "Open Your Eyes."
Run time: 136 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th December 2001
Box Office USA: $100.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $203.4M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Cruise-Wagner Productions, Vinyl Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%
Fresh: 67 Rotten: 97
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Tom Cruise as David Aames, Penélope Cruz as Sofia Serrano, Cameron Diaz as Julie, Kurt Russell as Dr. Curtis McCabe, Jason Lee as Brian, Noah Taylor as Edmund Ventura, Timothy Spall as Thomas Tipp, Tilda Swinton as Rebecca Dearborn, Armand Schultz as Dr. Pomeranz, Alicia Witt as Libby, Michael Shannon as Aaron, Ivana Miličević as Emma, Shalom Harlow as Colleen, Johnny Galecki as Peter Brown