Vanilla Sky (2001)Rated R for sexuality and strong language.
Starring Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell.
Photo ©Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
Cameron's Anti-Climactic Thriller
Vanilla Sky is the opposite of Mulholland Drive. In Mullholland Drive, a seemingly normal story takes several twists and turns while going through a reality change, then ends with no explanation. Vanilla Sky also goes through twists, turns, and reality changes, but then ends with a 20-minute coda wherein everything that has happened is over-explained.
I'm not sure which method I dislike more. I would have preferred a middle ground, with an explanation that is not so complete, thus giving me a chance to question it and dig a little deeper on my own. Memento successfully did this, so it was on my mind for days after I watched it. Vanilla Sky left nothing to my imagination.
On the way to its finale, the movie offers a mind-bending story. David Ames, an imprisoned man wearing a latex face-mask (Tom Cruise), tells a psychologist (Kurt Russell) about the events in his life that lead up to his current situation. He recalls being a freewheeling playboy, heir to a successful publishing empire. He sleeps with Julie (Cameron Diaz), a woman he calls a "friend," and supports another friend named Brian (Jason Lee) as he's writing a novel. One day, at one of his parties, he meets and instantly falls for Sofia (Penelope Cruz). When jealous Julie finds out, her actions lead to a car accident which disfigures David's face. And this is all just the beginning.
Before it's through, the movie will toss in murder charges, identity-switching, and miracle surgeries in to the mix. It is challenging for the viewer to keep the events straight, and engaging as a result. And then the ending comes. The ending is anti-climactic not only because the explanation leaves no stone unturned but also because the explanation itself is unsatisfactory. In fact, I found it to be downright hokey.
Cameron Crowe should be commended for attempting to helm a picture from a genre in which he has little experience. He is experimenting outside his normal range -- he usually makes romances, not psychological thrillers. That Vanilla Sky is accessible and intriguing is a testament to his skills as a film-maker. Ultimately, however, Crowe miscalculates. He is good at exploring the varying intensities of love, discussing the best ways to treat the one you love, and reinforcing these themes with a fitting rock soundtrack. These are the ingredients for a warm movie which explores the tender side of humanity. Thrillers, often in the form of noir, dwell on the dark side of humanity, exploring how low a man will go to acquire his wants and needs. In Vanilla Sky, he touches on his famliar themes of love and romance, once again using a rock soundtrack, but this isn't a warm story he is telling. Either he's using the wrong ingredients, or he's telling the wrong kind of story to address his themes.
The ending gives the most evidence for this miscalculation (and here I will provide a minor, detail-less spoiler; you may not wish to read on if you haven't seen the movie). By telling us everything, Crowe rejects any notion that his story is meant to be a mystery with noir themes. Instead of suffering for his deeds, the protagonist is given a chance to rectify the things that he had done wrong. The ending is hopeful, which falls in line with the endings of Crowe's previous works. So perhaps Vanilla Sky is really a romance disguised as a thriller. Is that what Crowe wanted all along? We could use an explanation for that one.
©Jeffrey Chen, Dec. 14, 2001