The single best scene in Vanilla Sky, and maybe in the entire year of cinema, takes place right at the beginning of this film. On the surface it's not anything that special, just a scene of Tom Cruise, running panicked through Times Square in New York City. Only Times Square is completely devoid of traffic or pedestrians. As is every street we can see down. New York, effectively, is empty. Whether this was done legitimately or with digital effects (or a combination of both), I don't know. And I couldn't tell, either. It's a powerful shot to launch what should have been a powerful movie.
Sadly, it's a bit downhill from there. While Vanilla Sky is a solid effort, it's unfortunately short of genius. The very project is a bit curious. Is Cameron Crowe, the permanent teenager responsible for perfectly good yet light-as-a-feather comedies like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, up to the challenge of remaking a Spanish psychodrama? Crowe goes through the motions, and from time to time he proves that he can handle heavier material, but Vanilla Sky is too murky to be much more than a holiday distraction -- far from the cult classic that the original Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) has become.
In Sky, Tom Cruise plays a playboy/magazine mogul named David Aames, the kind of guy who goes to work only because society seems to expect it... and to ensure he keeps a hand on his mountainous inheritance, lest the Evil Board of Directors (and 49% shareholders) horn in on his turf. When he's not ignoring his business, he's busy bonking his good friend Julie (Cameron Diaz), a kind of fallen angel/demon slut that David promptly kicks out of bed each morning.
But strange things start to happen in David's cushy life when the mysterious Sofia (Penélope Cruz) appears at one of David's parties. David finds himself instantly smitten, promptly chasing her around town as he woos her. After a night of "talking" at Sofia's, David encounters his old flame Julie outside her apartment. She entices him into her car, promptly goes berserk, and drives it off a bridge in a fantastically explosion-free Manhattan car wreck. David survives but is horribly disfigured. For a man that traffics on his looks (and kudos to Cruise for taking on such a stereotype-busting role), this is the end of the world. He seeks every avenue of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction he can find -- and while this is going on, he starts to lose his grip on sanity. He sees the presumed-dead Julie everywhere. His friends turn on him. He imagines the board of directors has created an elaborate plot to drive him out of the company. And he finds himself charged with a murder.
All of this plays for mystery but it never quite comes together. Bearing a remarkable similarity to Jacob's Ladder, Vanilla Sky wants to make you think but doesn't really provoke any philosophical or psychological question more serious than the dorm-room gabbing seen in Waking Life. While it sounds like there are a lot of options here -- David is either crazy, dreaming, dead, or the victim of a massive conspiracy -- Vanilla Sky really does try to get you to believe them all, simultaneously. The supposed "Omigod!" ending is wholly unsatisfying and, as a stark opposite to Jacob's Ladder, is not even remotely believable, possible, or interesting.
While Cruise and Diaz submit excellent performances, the other Cruz is apparently cast simply because she is the physical opposite of Diaz (not to mention having starred in the same role in Ojos). She almost always appears alongside Cruise in the film, and when she does, her acting talents (or lack thereof) and problems with English become woefully apparent. Tom's bust-out performance makes her look like scenery, barely even conscious at all.
Crowe's obsession with rock music and his soundtrack full of classic and modern rock hits create even more serious problems. Does Peter Gabriel's jangly "Salisbury Hill" really set the tone for mystery and duplicity? I'll never forget John Cusack holding up a boombox as it plays "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything..., but Crowe's choice of tracks is totally wrong for this movie. Note to Cameron: Try some classical next time. It's on the other side of the record store.
A number of readers have asked me about this, so I'll address it as well: The name of the film is another non-sequitur, a working title from Almost Famous that Crowe has been apparently desperate to use somewhere. Alas, it doesn't fit here either, despite a vain attempt to make it sensical by tying it into the colors in a Monet painting David owns. It's too bad Cruise just wrapped Eyes Wide Shut, because Open Your Eyes really is the best title for this film.
Vanilla Sky has moments of brilliance and bears a certain style, but the movie is neither simple enough for sheer popcorn-thriller fun nor complex enough for true psychodrama buffs. It lies somewhere in a middle ground, and anyone that tells you different... needs to open his eyes.
However... Cameron Crowe's DVD commentary track is one of the best I've heard. While he's overly proud of the middling achievement, he's honest about the tepid reaction from test audiences, and he does provide a little extra context for the various interpretations of the movie. (Also of note, this is the first commentary I've heard with a musical score: someone (Crowe's wife, Nancy Wilson) playing acoustic guitar. Crowe also phones up his stars during the recording... bizarre.) Unfortunately, none of this can make Penélope Cruz a good actress. An interview with songwriter Paul McCartney, two featurettes, and assorted trailers round out the disc.
The masked man keeps his eyes wide shut.