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Beneath the hazy, mystifying layers of Vanilla Sky lies a remarkable Tom Cruise performance -- one that, to a large extent, takes place beneath a makeup artist's piled-on scars and a costumer's blank "prosthetic" mask. As David Aames, hipster publisher of Maxim-like magazines, Cruise plays a lothario so vain he plucks out a single gray hair with tweezers kept in a wooden box by the sink. David lives in a glam world of catered lunches and lavish parties, hosted in an apartment that seems to spread over an entire brownstone's floor. David is often reminded, and often acknowledges, that he is "living the dream"; just as often, he is told, "Open your eyes."
After sweating out his rock-journalism past in last year's Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe has chosen to remake Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos, a film suggested to him by Cruise. No doubt the actor saw in it familiar themes he and Crowe explored back in Jerry Maguire: the ruin and rebirth of the shallow man, the destruction and resurrection of an empty life built upon meaningless totems.
Vanilla Sky mostly takes place deep inside the subconscious of David Aames, where reality and make-believe are interchangeable. Nothing in Vanilla Skyis as it seems. At the beginning, David wakes up in a dream in which he, the cheerful narcissist, is the sole inhabitant of Manhattan Island. With Radiohead's haunting "Everything in Its Right Place" droning on the soundtrack, David zooms his Ferrari through a desolate, lit-up Times Square. It's his ultimate fantasy, perhaps, but also his greatest fear: to be alone, without anyone to admire him. He needs people, their attention and affection. But just as easily does he discard them, flaunting one would-be lover and his best friend's date, Sofia (Penélope Cruz, star of the original), in front of a longtime fuck-buddy, Julie (Cameron Diaz), during one of his star-studded soirees. Eventually, such casual disregard for Julie -- and his dear pal Brian (Jason Lee), whose novel David is financing -- leads to inevitable tragedy: Julie beckons David into her car, solely to plunge her ride off a bridge and into a brick wall, leaving him disfigured and her dead.
Or is she? And is David truly scarred, his once-beautiful visage a mass of ground flesh, or is the mutilation in his mind and not on his face? And does Sofia exist, or is she a figment of his imagination, the one woman he might truly be able to love? The film is less a narrative than a puzzle to assemble and reassemble every few minutes. One minute, the handsome David is discussing dreams with friends; the next, he's behind a mask and sitting in a cell with McCabe (Kurt Russell), a psychiatrist who informs David he's been imprisoned on a murder charge. Vanilla Skyleaps willy-nilly through time and space; we're often not sure where David is or who David is. A madman, maybe, or just a rich dude with blood on his hands. Cruise plays it just right: He's as exasperated as we are, always a second away from turning a smirk into a scream.
But only the blind could miss the inevitable ending, which is hinted at so often it's as though Crowe is afraid we'll stop caring if we're not spoon-fed enough information, and that's Vanilla Sky's central flaw. It wants to be weird, but it's terrified of being too bizarre. Every time someone turns on a television set, there's but one thing on the screen, the inventor of something called Life Extension, a cryogenic project that offers "eternal life." 'Round about the time Benny, a once-frozen dog thawed out as proof of the great experiment, shows up on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, the audience is three steps ahead. We wait only for the revelation that, by the time it arrives, feels predictable and warmed-over, no matter the ambition of fusing sci-fi with melodrama.
Crowe gives us no credit, no room for our own interpretations or imaginations. He renders David's dream (and its accompanying nightmare) so literal we can't help but leave the theater feeling as though we've been lectured to, told how to feel and what to think. And for an audience, that's a bit of a nightmare.
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