Thursday, September 6, 2012

Overlooked Gems #41: Vanilla Sky

Grade: 76 (B+)

It’s no coincidence that the new millennium was met with a wide variety of puzzle-box movies. The Game, Dark City, The Matrix, Fight Club, Memento, Donnie Darko, and Mulholland Dr.,  among other films, questioned whether or not one could distinguish reality from dreams, subconscious, or the control of others. Many of these were either instant critical successes or otherwise gathered large cult followings in the years since their release. Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film Vanilla Sky has had less success in this regard. The film has an enormous amount of baggage: it’s a remake of the well-regarded Alejandro Amenabar film Open Your Eyes, one of the first puzzle-box movies. It was made at the height of Tom Cruise’s popularity. It was released just two years after Cruise’s revelatory performances in Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise and Crowe’s previous collaboration, Jerry Maguire, features one of Cruise’s best performances and is the gold standard of 90s romantic comedies. Finally, it was released in the same year as the superior Memento and Mulholland Dr., not to mention a year after Crowe’s masterpiece Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky was financially successful but a critical disappointment. Time has been kind to this flawed gem, however, and it deserves a second chance.

David Aames (Cruise) inherited a major publishing company in New York after the death of his father, and he’s now an extraordinarily wealthy playboy bachelor with rich and powerful friends (Steven Spielberg, Cruise’s collaborator in the next year’s Minority Report, makes a cameo). David is currently seeing Julianna Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a struggling musician, but he doesn’t take her seriously. At David’s birthday party, his best friend Brian (Jason Lee) brings over a dancer named Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original film). David is smitten, but the pathologically jealous Julia takes it badly.

That’s a basic introduction. As with any puzzle-box movie, part of the fun is guessing where it’s going and being surprised, so I’d recommend checking the film out on Netflix Instant or elsewhere before looking into more information. Needless to say, some of the films’ twists and turns annoyed viewers. Their complaints aren’t completely unmerited: after a long, disorienting second act, the third act plays the “let’s explain everything” game rather than letting the viewer piece things together. It’s understandably frustrating, leaving out any question of ambiguity all while going down a path that’s bound to alienate some viewers anyway.

Yet it’s not a disastrous ending by any means. While by no counts entirely successful, the film’s ending plays into Cameron Crowe’s obsession with popular culture and how it shapes our lives. And even those irritated by where the film ends up should appreciate how vivid the journey there is. Vanilla Sky isn’t Crowe’s most successful film by any means (it would come in a distant fourth behind Almost Famous, Say Anything, and Jerry Maguire), but it might rank as his most ambitious and most technically audacious, a film that doubles as a paranoid thriller and a deeply emotional moral fable of the Jerry Maguire vein, jam-packed with pop-culture references ranging from Jules and Jim to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to past Cruise films, most notably Eyes Wide Shut.

Crowe has always been a master at using music in his movies- it’s impossible to think of “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel without thinking of Say Anything or “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John without thinking of Almost Famous. Vanilla Sky boasts quite possibly Crowe’s most eclectic and exhilarating soundtrack, mixing electronica, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Sigur Ros, Jeff Buckley, The Chemical Brothers, John Coltrane, and a fantastic, Oscar-nominated title song by Paul McCartney, among others. But Crowe’s use of music is at its best in the exhilarating opening dream sequence: Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” (my favorite song of the 2000s, incidentally) plays as Cruise “wakes up”, goes through a daily routine, drives out into New York’s Time Square…only to find that nobody is there as he runs out and the soundtrack changes to the more frantic sounds of Mint Royale’s “From Rusholme with Love” plays.

Crowe populates his film with a variety of talented actors in the supporting roles: Timothy Spall, Noah Taylor, Kurt Russell, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Lee all put in strong work. Diaz, in particular, has never been this good before or since in a role that’s equal parts frightening and deeply sad- she was pegged for a Supporting Actress Oscar Nomination that she likely just missed out on. The film suffers a bit in the center: Cruz’s work in the original film was well-received, but like many of her early English-language performances, she still seems to be searching for her footing as a performer. And while Cruise is reliably strong and well-cast as the narcissistic David, the role can’t help but pale a bit next to his work in Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, and Magnolia.

But that’s not necessarily a major flaw: most of Cruise’s best films work off the basis of playing with the Tom Cruise iconography and showing the cracks in the mask of invincibility he’s put on. Vanilla Sky isn’t just a film about the iconography, but also a film about how iconography factors into our lives. Cruise’s past films showed a cocky, good-looking hotshot humanized. Vanilla Sky is a film about a cocky, good-looking superstar who doesn’t know how to be anything but that, what he does when he’s robbed of vanity, and how impossible it is to live life like the movies. 

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