Directed by Cameron Crowe
One of the year's most ambitious movies, Vanilla Sky skillfully ratchets up the tension as reality and fantasy blur together in a mélange of flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), dreams, and nightmares.
What takes Cameron Crowe's latest film to the next level is its multi-dimensional approach to the material. Not satisfied to be simply a thriller or a love story, this one questions life, happiness, and the hereafter.
Everything You Know is Wrong
With Vanilla Sky it can finally be asked: Remember when Cameron Crowe was a nice boy? Having covered the tender, romantic scene with movies like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire and his sweet and funny semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, Crowe now finds himself at ground zero in the realm of the dark and mysterious. This movie is unlike anything the creator of the legendary Jeff Spicoli has tackled before.
The simple, heartfelt sincerity of his earlier movies is left in the dust as Crowe tells the tale of David Aames (Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire). He's a pretty-boy magazine tycoon born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a publishing empire in his backyard. As is common with those who don't have to work hard, he was also born with a huge ego and he lives a life almost worth dying for.
One of David's best friends is Brian Shelby (Jason Lee, Almost Famous). He's the kind of guy who introduces his latest potential girlfriends to David only to lose them to him. Brian's latest loss, and David's latest gain, is Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz, Abre Los Ojos). She's a multi-talented Latin beauty who catches David's superficial eye in a heartbeat.
Thrown into the mix is Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz, Shrek), David's buddy for all things "romantic." With Sofia on the prowl, Julie gets a little jealous. Upset about not being invited to David's latest celebrity-studded party, her behavior becomes a little suspicious and from there everything is in doubt and nothing is exactly as it seems.
The real madness begins after the party when David finds himself blamed for a death in a case that he thinks is a frame up.
Man on the Run
Heavy with spiritual overtones, Vanilla Sky is a grand picture of how the grass isn't always greener on the other side. After a fatal car crash, David is no longer able to play off his looks and instead must hide behind a mask. But what he's really hiding from is a greater mystery.
Brian, who knows firsthand the "exquisite pain of the guy who goes home alone," repeatedly reminds the never lonely David that you can't really savor the sweet until you"ve had the bitter. It's a foreign concept to the spoiled playboy, but it's one of many themes that gets repeated throughout David's ordeal.
In simple terms, Vanilla Sky could be called the ultimate journey of self-discovery. David is put on that path as he confronts his own fears and tackles his own subconscious. Therein lies the tool that can turn dreams into nightmares.
Vanilla Sky works on many levels, most notably with the themes running below the surface. In a movie that has souls literally for sale, lines like "Let me see your face" and "Open your eyes" evolve from simple requests to philosophical double entendres. Here, being asked "What is happiness to you?" doesn't have a simple answer.
The casting is also terrific. Cruise brings depth to the shallow David as he gets pushed into a corner and begins to excavate his tormented soul. But the big surprise is that Cruz seems to have finally shed her fear of acting in English that made her performance in Woman on Top so wooden. (Having played Sofia in the Spanish-language original that acted as this film's source material probably helped.)
Also offering a surprisingly effective performance is Kurt Russell, a good actor (Elvis) who has been in more than his share of junk (3000 Miles to Graceland). He finally gets another chance at straight drama as the bespectacled doctor who wants to get past the mask behind which David hides.
Crowe's direction is solid, keeping the insanity in check and making sure that it all adds up. Everything is in the right place and it's that attention to detail, from story to soundtrack, which keeps the drama taut without having to cheat.
Most importantly, though, the story fulfills its promise of being a mind-bender. It's a guessing game as to what is going on until the very end.
And that ending gives Vanilla Sky its biggest kick. It's the kind of ending that can lend itself to lively post-show coffee talk as its numerous interpretations and possibilities get bantered about.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.