WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Handsome and rich, David Aames’ arrogance proves his undoing when sometime bedfellow Julie shows her extreme displeasure by driving off a bridge with David in the car. Facially disfigured, he struggles to rebuild his life and woo beautiful dancer Sofia. Though he succeeds, can he be sure that the girl of his dreams is all she seems? Or is she part of one of his many nightmares?
David Aames (Tom Cruise) has pretty much the definition of a dream life. Though he’s occasionally troubled by his dreams, when he opens his eyes he has it all: inherited wealth, a fabulous apartment, a vintage sports car and Cameron Diaz, sorry Julie Gianni, as his – ahem – ‘fun’ buddy (be warned, there will be swearing later). David’s such a high-flying playboy that he has Spielberg drop in to wish him a happy birthday, but in the middle of the party another guest puts him in a spin: Spanish dancer Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from Abre los Ojos, on which this film is based), the date of David’s writer friend Brian (Jason Lee). Brushing both Julie and Brian aside, David spends a romantic yet unconsummated night with Sofia; but the next morning, he gets into Julie’s car and, devastated that he refuses to love her, she drives off a bridge. Fade to black.
Some time later David, disfigured, tries to re-establish contact with Sofia; and while his drunken ramblings originally put her off, the next day she takes pity on him and the pair do begin an ideal relationship. Except there are problems: despite brilliant reconstructive surgery, David still has nightmares about his face, and deeper psychological issues surface when the supposedly dead Julie starts to take Sofia’s place, with other familiar faces popping up in unusual places. Worst of all, David ends up, masked, about to be tried for a murder he’s convinced he couldn’t commit, with only psychiatrist McCabe (Kurt Russell) prepared to listen. David’s convinced that it’s all a put-up by the board of ’Seven Dwarfs’ seeking (he thinks) to take over his publishing company; the truth, however, is more fantastic than his wildest conspiracy theories.
Vanilla Sky is best seen before reading too much about it; but with that caveat, I’m going to plough on. To get the most from the plot, the film relies on you paying a little, though not too much, attention to mentions of a thawed-out dog who has lived for ages and a woman called ‘Ellie’ – though viewers of Deep Impact will instantly latch on to a book called L.E. or Life Extension. The bizarre events that unfold in front of David are presented as a psychological horror, finally revealing themselves in an interesting and entertaining variation on the events of Total Recall and the later Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
But – whilst I enjoyed the outlandish twists and turns of the film’s second half, I had already made up my mind that David was – excuse the language – an absolute cock. If you thought Jerry Maguire was a bit of a cock, Aames is orders of magnitude worse (heck, his nickname is ‘Citizen Dildo’). Despite the fact that Crowe plays around with the time-frame to give us an early, intriguing glimpse of David in prison, I really struggled to have any sympathy for him whatsoever, either before or after the car crash, which doesn’t actually disfigure him much but makes him twice as obnoxious. Cruise can be a good actor, but he has an unhappy knack of looking self-satisfied even when he’s anguished; and Tom is so much to the fore in Vanilla Sky that the good work of Diaz, Cruz and Russell (I don’t believe in Lee’s writer at all, I’m afraid) goes pretty much unnoticed. I would have been appeased if Cruise had – spoilers – ‘really’ been an average Joe, given a decent [after]life as a trial; but no, from start to almost finish, he’s the same brash, moneyed, totally self-loving arse, not possessing a hint of the knowing satire that graced American Psycho.
I have other issues too. The first is David’s aesthetic mask, a good prop laden with psychological guff, but one which makes it hard to follow what Cruise is saying or feeling, despite his bizarrely exaggerated movements (Hugo Weaving had the same problem in V for Vendetta). Second, Cameron Crowe is in absolute awe of pop culture, throwing some good songs (such as REM’s Sweetness follows) into the soundtrack in horribly intrusive fashion, and some entirely inappropriate visuals too (what on Earth has Pete Townshend sliding on his knees from The Kids are Alright got to do with the story?) Thirdly, I don’t buy the father angst for a second, given the cushy life David Aames Sr gave his son. And fourthly, though I do like what happens to David, it is all explained in a massive information dump at the film’s conclusion (and oh! for an ounce of the humour that something like Being John Malkovitch derived from its oddness).
Films don’t have to feature protagonists that we like in order for us to get involved with their stories, and Vanilla Sky eventually tells an unexpectedly wacky and entertaining tale once (or if) you surrender yourself to it. Unfortunately, the smugness of both Cruise and Crowe prove almost insurmountable turn-offs, despite Cameron’s crazy Julie and Penelope’s sweet Sofia. If only they’d been given more of an opportunity to shine – but how could they, with so much attention given to the star and his dazzling grin?