The “Top Rumors About Tom Cruise” STATshot from Volume 37, Issue 43 of The Onion had this to say about the superstar: “Had self cloned so he could fellate self.” Forget about Cruise’s semi-resemblance to Open Your Eyes lead Eduardo Noriega and any tears the actor might have shed over witnessing a pretty boy lose his face (read: fortune) via a tragic accident. This Onion blurb serves a more imminent function as tagline for the whole of Vanilla Sky, a masturbatory pop-culture thriller that services Cameron Crowe’s own fondness for rock n’ roll rather than actually informing its hero’s own existential crisis. Crowe’s carbon copy version of Alejandro Amenábar’s narcissist’s nightmare sometimes improves on the original but it’s a mostly reductive, self-centered affair.
David Ames (Cruise) is a pin-up publisher who owns both a CD-R alarm clock (by which the film trivially accounts for Amenábar’s “abre los ojos”) and a television set that slides into the floor when not in operation. Crowe’s feeble-minded wealth signifiers grow considerably more tiresome as the film putters along; croissants greet David outside his old-fashioned office building while inside it’s business as usual (trigger-fire cover proofing and urgent e-mails from Courtney Love). As the major company shareholder, David is wary of the grim-faced board members (“The Seven Dwarfs”) he believes are hoping to leech off his father’s legacy. If his father “wasn’t built for the 20th century,” David seems to rectify his past via luxury goods. Crowe may up the Amenábar ante by linking his hero’s occupational angst to fairy tale allegory but he does nothing of interest with David’s paranoiac fears; in fact, the film’s rapid-fire flashbacks establish the young David as a kid likely to be more interested in bike-riding than Grimm-reading.
Julie (Cameron Diaz) is the unbearably shrill other woman who vies for David’s love by way of his sex juices (she swallows, so why not first dibs on his heart?). Where Amenábar’s Nuria was a fascinatingly seductive cipher (and therefore desirable alternative), Julie is a ludicrous representation of the clingy adulteress. Once David’s “reality” begins to confuse his women, her presence, in turn, becomes awkward and comical. Sofia (Penélope Cruz) is Mr. Pleasured Life’s female du jour (“the last semi-guileless girl in New York City”), a timid Spanish creature that hopes to humble David’s egocentric heart. Cruz’s mime routine from Open Your Eyes heavy-handedly accentuated Amenábar obsessions with reality and cognition. In Vanilla, Sofia’s hobby may be unburdened by metaphor (she’s a dancer) yet Crowe ridiculously emphasizes the woman’s grace by having her pick up dirty laundry with her toes. For added Latin flavor, Crowe has Cruz breakout into unexplained Spanish when her character is at her most emotionally frayed.
Julie drives off a Central Park overpass with a pleading David by her side. He is disfigured in the accident, forced to don a prosthetic mask until plastic surgery catches up with the times. David’s scars are less Twilight Zone-piggish than those that plagued Amenábar’s César, while John Toll’s camerawork does wonders with the egomaniac’s party mask (indeed, Vanilla’s club scene packs a hotter, sweatier wallop than its original incarnation). Crowe’s take on David and Sofia’s breakup is relatively understated; more so than in Eyes, there is a sense that Sofia doesn’t owe David anything since she only knew him one night prior to his disfigurement. This restraint, though, is elusive. Where Amenábar’s film dripped with dread, Vanilla is considerably more, well, vanilla—no thanks to a dreamy score (ripe with classic rock songs spanning the Bob Dylan/R.E.M. spectrum) that’s entirely too “shiny happy people” for the narrative.
Crowe does amazing things with his mise-en-scène: artwork in David’s apartment fabulously prefigures the film’s vehicular chaos while a poster of Jules and Jim (however obvious a reference to Vanilla’s own love triangle) terrifyingly rewrites the joy on Jeanne Moreau’s face. Crowe, though, is considerably less trusting of his audience than Amenábar, sprinkling Vanilla with endless references to the cryogenic/re-animation theme that latently bubbled beneath Eyes’ surface. Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell) counsels the troubled David when the scarred man is accused of murder, egregiously calling attention to the film’s semantics by hinting at David’s paranoiac mentality and dream-like worldview (“Can you tell the difference between dreams and reality?”). While Crowe’s existential procedural is about as simple-minded as Amenábar’s, Vanilla significantly humanizes its hero via pop-culture references. The problem, though, is that the film’s surprise ending comes at a crippling price.
Crowe’s finale is visually chilling if only because the WTC makes its most apt, post-9/11 appearance to date. (Spoiler warning.) By de-emphasizing David’s past and his pop-cultural desires throughout the film, Vanilla (like Eyes) only becomes intriguing in retrospect; and, even then, only post Life Extension. Even if the spectator buys the notion that David is rewriting his world via pop signifiers, whose life is he re-inventing, his own or Crowe’s? What once seemed like a gratuitous excuse to play diegetic music (Jeff Buckley, Vikki Carr) now becomes David’s pleasure principle. He may like Sinead O’Connor, but are we to believe that David likes Carr, let alone Monet and To Kill a Mockingbird? David isn’t that deep. David’s favorite Beatle may be George Harrison (cue serendipity!), but we’ve all seen Almost Famous; there’s nothing to suggest that Vanilla is anything more than an existential whine set to some baby boomer’s favorite songs. Even if Cruise’s fondness for Eyes was narcissistically informed, Vanilla plays out like Crowe’s own humping post. That isn’t David Ames jumping off the roof, it’s Almost Famous’s Patrick Fugit.
Vanilla Sky is presented in its original 1.85 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Despite some minor halo effects, the transfer is incredibly impressive. Flesh tones are a little on the pink side though perfectly in keeping with cinematographer John Toll’s warm color palette. Vanilla Sky plays better, both visually and thematically, on the small screen if only because Cameron Crowe’s postmodern experiment seems more at home in more intimate, digital settings. The surround mix compromises some of the spatiality of the dialogue but the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is unbelievably robust and appropriately in your face. If there is one thing Crowe knows, it is definitely music.
I still don’t like that tacky "widescreen collection" blue strip Paramount places at the top of all their DVD editions; it’s especially invasive on their Vanilla Sky DVD if only because the layout of the film’s outstandingly and surprsingly minimalist interactive menus are diametrically opposed to the gaudy cover art. The audio commentary track with Cameron Crowe and Nancy Wilson is incredibly engaging. Crowe offers many explanations though he readily admits that there is no one way to approach the film’s many existentialist themes. If Vanilla Sky is still (still?) Crowe’s walk down a memory lane drunk on pop-culture references, it’s nonetheless fascinating to hear him deconstruct the codes written on the film’s intricate production design. Whether you buy what he’s doing or not is beside the point. Crowe took great pains to make Cruz look like a French New Wave heroine during the scene in which she visits David in prison. On the "Prelude to a Dream" featurette, Crowe discusses how he sought to pepper his film with the kind of clues and signposts that were crucial to the cover of the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Like the "Hitting it Hard" featurette (a montage of crazed fan reactions to Tom Cruz (?) and Penélope Cruz taken from the film’s 2001-2002 press tour), "Prelude to a Dream" is pretentiously put together yet the mood they set is certainly consistent with the tone of the film. A section devoted solely to the film’s musical elements includes the Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa video for "Afrika Shox" and an "Entertainment Tonight" interview with Paul McCartney where the former Beatle discusses how an encounter with a French-speaking waiter became the seed for his "Vanilla Sky" song. Also included here are the film’s international trailer, an unreleased teaser trailer (evocatively set to the Chemical Brothers’s "Where Do I Begin"), and eight wonderful yet exhaustive photo galleries with an audio introduction from still photographer Neal Preston, a friend of Crowe’s since their days at Rolling Stone.
Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe’s trip down pop-culture lane, gets the kind of ethereal DVD treatment it so deserves.