“If you think this about vanity, you’re wrong,” says a disfigured Tom Cruise to a team of plastic surgeons in one of the more ironic moments in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. Oh, yeah? This, I suppose, is why the actor’s face looms out 40 inches high from the movie’s poster. Co-producer Cruise can’t even manage to picture his co-star and real-life girlfriend, Penelope Cruz, in the film’s advertising. But on the face of things, Vanilla Sky tells us that not only is its star not vain, but manages to arbitrarily drag in a statement on his heterosexuality (so much for the niggling rumors on that score!). These are just a few of the problems that cannot be overcome in one of the most frustratingly fascinating films of 2001. Vanilla Sky isn’t by any means a great film, but it’s never less than mesmerizing in its essential strangeness and the double-edged sword of a subtext that exists only because it stars and is co-produced by Cruise. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s remarkably assured. In taking Alejandro Amenabar’s (The Others) Spanish original (which also starred Penelope Cruz in the same role she assays here), Open Your Eyes, Cameron Crowe has developed a marvelously complex narrative in the manner of a fantasticated cinematic jigsaw puzzle. The film spends more than two hours playing mind games with the viewer, only to lead to a conclusion where everything actually makes sense. The problem with this is that it’s a lot of work to get a conclusion that is more than apt to leave you asking, “And the point to all this is?” It’s clever. It’s strangely haunting. But if it has any deep significance beyond being a flashy piece of writing and filmmaking, that significance is lost on me. The premise is dense and complex, and works on a number of levels at one time, owing to the film’s equally complex structure. An almost impossibly vain and shallow publishing magnate, David Aames (Cruise), dumps his occasional girlfriend, Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), when he meets his apparent true love, Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz). The rejected Julie immediately goes Glenn Close on him (“When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not!”) and tries to kill both him and herself in a car wreck. She apparently succeeds in her suicide bid, but only leaves her errant lover badly mangled and disfigured. I say “apparently,” because this is where the film starts seriously interweaving truth and dreams on such a level that even when you think you know where you are, it pulls the reality rug from beneath your feet — a game that it hinted at from the onset and carries on till the film’s conclusion. And it’s a grand game played by a filmmaker who knows how to use both image and sound, but it seems ultimately rather hollow. Yet the film sticks with you, suggesting that there’s something more here than appears. But that, too, may be a part of the game, and something only the individual viewer can decide. What is probably not an intended part of the game, though, is the subtext that Cruise’s participation brings to the film. In many ways, Vanilla Sky would be a better film with almost anyone but Cruise in the lead. This isn’t so much because he lacks the skill to bring off the role (though that’s at least partly true, because he never does manage to make the viewer much care about his character), but because his presence in the movie is frankly distracting. In a sense, it’s the ultimate Tom Cruise vehicle because it’s so completely immersed in narcissism and self-importance. However, because it is Cruise, this conceit goes way beyond the boundaries of the film, making it seem like the production of a man who wants it both ways: He wants us to realize how pretty he is, all the while trying to convince us that this is of no consequence. In other words, Cruise comes with way too much baggage for the film to be completely convincing. Sure, he spends a great deal of the movie disfigured or behind a strangely creepy mask, but he oh-so-carefully makes sure that he gets to play his final scene as himself in all his glory. At this point, it becomes impossible to forget that Cruise refused to play the title character in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands unless the film was rewritten so that Edward was transformed into something more traditionally attractive by the end of the movie. He couldn’t get that concession there, so he gives it to himself here, making his gesture at putting his looks aside a pretty empty one. Even so, it’s impossible not to admire both Cruise and Crowe for putting out a film so deliberately complex and convoluted that it’s apt to alienate much of its potential audience.
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