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Eye opener
Crowe’s Vanilla Sky is almost a masterpiece


Directed by Cameron Crowe. Written by Cameron Crowe based on the film Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos), by Alejandro Amenábar. With Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Noah Taylor, and Tilda Swinton. A Paramount Pictures release. At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Sky pilot

God, they say, is in the details. Certainly a movie director is. Take, for example, this Cameron Crowe remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes. After the autobiographical Almost Famous, you’d think Crowe would be less personal in a reprise of someone else’s movie. Not so. If you look more closely, you’ll see his signature everywhere. In the details.

For example, there’s the snippet from To Kill a Mockingbird, his mother’s favorite movie and the one that caused her to insist he become a lawyer, counsel that he rejected. "I don’t know what would be sadder. Getting into law school now or another movie where I pay homage to Atticus Finch."

That’s an easy one. But there are other resonant details that should take those so inclined at least a few viewings to detect.

"It’s packed," Crowe acknowledges. "Okay, I’ll tell you one. I first have to tell you this story. Amenábar in an interview said he wrote this movie in a fevered dream. So we make the whole movie, and we’re almost finished editing it, and one of the editors comes in and says, ‘You’ve seen ‘Shadow Play,’ haven’t you? It’s a Twilight Zone episode. I said, ‘No I haven’t seen ‘Shadow Play.’ He said, ‘You should see ‘Shadow Play.’ I revisited ‘Shadow Play’ — it’s about a guy who’s caught in a dream and the faces change and they’re created by him and he’s trying to get out of the dream and some of the lines were similar to the theme of our movie. So I watched ‘Shadow Play’ and thought, damn, if you watched ‘Shadow Play,’ who’s to know that in your fevered dream ‘Shadow Play’ doesn’t come out, or maybe ‘Shadow Play’ is my desire to want to make this movie. So we decided we loved ‘Shadow Play,’ we were going to embrace the pop culture of ‘Shadow Play.’

And so, in the startling opening sequence of Vanilla Sky, smug and handsome David Aames tools around Times Square and comes to the horrifying realization that he’s the only one there . . .

"It’s one of the few kind of computer-generated things we did to the Times Square sequence," Crowe continues. "In the center Budweiser Jumbotron is ‘Shadow Play.’ So if you’re a Twilight Zone freak, you will see Dennis Weaver yelling ‘It’s a dream! It’s a dream!’ in the first scene of the movie."

Well, is it? And if not, why are so many movies lately — Mulholland Drive, The Others (directed by Alejandro Amenábar, produced by Cruise, and starring Cruise’s ex-wife, Nicole Kidman), and Waking Life (in which an animated Steven Soderbergh relates a Billy Wilder anecdote not in Crowe’s recent book, Conversations with Billy Wilder) — toying with the dream/reality conundrum?

"We know a lot of people who would want to buy that dream," Crowe answers. "I think people were into exploring synthetic realities and stuff, and that became the rage a little bit. It almost kept me from doing this movie, actually. I watched eXistenZ . . . never saw The Game, but I loved The Matrix. They all came out the same year, 1997. [Actually, eXistenZ and The Matrix were released in 1999.] I wondered, was Open Your Eyes just of the moment, 1997, and meant to be of that moment? But I loved the characters too much, I thought the characters could survive the premise, and actually making the premise more rich was what I was going for."

Crowe admits some concern about releasing a film like this in this new age of terrifying realities. "Nine-Eleven changed a lot. I think the question is, when does the dream become a nightmare? People have found they craved to know what’s real, or at least began to listen to what might be real in their lives. And that changed things a little bit, but the spirit in the world when we made the movie was, ‘What’s next? Bring on the next round of entertainment, whatever it is.’ People were almost militantly craving the next big entertainment, news-wise, and now people have acquired, and I hope it lasts, a little more soul about the world around them."

One thing the post–September 11 mindset didn’t change, though, was a detail Crowe kept in one of the film’s last scenes, a panorama of the New York skyline. In the distance you can see the World Trade Towers.

"They would have happily paid for me to take them out, I think. It was like a horrific thing that I wanted to leave them in. Nobody would agree with me about that."

— PK

In a sense, there are only two important directors in Hollywood right now, filmmakers who can command big budgets and big stars and also have serious ambitions to cinema that’s original, artful, and lasting. Steven Soderbergh cashed in his Oscar (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) laurels from last year to make the infinitely commercial and inconsequential marzipan of Ocean’s Eleven. I don’t see him making something like The Limey again soon, let alone Schizopolis. Then there’s Cameron Crowe. His Almost Famous didn’t convince me. His Vanilla Sky, a remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s Spanish headscratcher Open Your Eyes, does.

To begin with, it says more about pop music in one line of dialogue than does most of Crowe’s Creem-puff autobiographical tour of the ’70s. "So that’s what rock-and-roll music has become: a broken guitar in a glass case on a rich man’s wall," quips Sofia (Penélope Cruz). She’s commenting on an item in the collection of playboy David Aames (Tom Cruise), which also includes canvases by Joni Mitchell and Monet (the latter featuring the "vanilla sky" that was the favorite of his deceased mother) and a hologram of John Coltrane.

That used to be the way David preferred his experience: contained, controlled, and if necessary disposable. Vain, beautiful, rich, and spoiled, he’s the scion of a publishing empire, a descendant perhaps of Charles Foster Kane (his nickname among the company’s board members is "Citizen Dildo"). But Sofia’s words, or perhaps her smile, come as a wake-up call. Will he shake off his life of empty hedonism and idle possessions? Is she the girl of his dreams?

There are complications. Sofia is actually the date of David’s best friend, Brian (Jason Lee); he brought her to David’s birthday party and David just assumed she was another present. Then there’s Julia (Cameron Diaz), the girl from the night before, who can’t understand that she and David won’t be together forever. Finally, there’s David’s own moral inertia, so he gets into Julia’s car for one last fling . . .

A nightmare of suicide, disfigurement, betrayal, murder, and abject paranoia follows, much the same as in Amenábar’s original, but augmented here not so much by Crowe’s oneiric imagery, stellar cast, and the best soundtrack of the year as by his sardonic omniscience about the seductions of simulated existence. Like Cruise himself, David is a beleaguered icon. He self-destructs and must fashion a new image, whether literally via a team of plastic surgeons who offer him an "aesthetic regenerative shield" (i.e., a mask), psychically by means of a shrink (Kurt Russell) who’s trying to uncover the truth about his guilt or innocence regarding a confusing crime, or pop-culturally by means of Crowe’s diabolically crafted webwork of references and allusions.

Some of the success of Vanilla Sky depends on a willing suspension of disbelief — I mean, would you trade Cameron Diaz for Penélope Cruz? Yet Cruz as Sofia does demonstrate a sly irony that’s new in her English-speaking performances: when she assesses Julia as "the saddest girl ever to hold a martini," the advantage begins to tilt a bit in Sofia’s favor. She’s given ample support from Cruise, who reaches back for the kind of subversive energy he demonstrated in Born on the Fourth of July and Interview with a Vampire. He’s certainly opened up a lot since his pairing with Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. And therein lie the film’s greatest virtues: it is, indeed, a love story. Self-love, perhaps, love in which the names and faces get a little mixed up, too, but love nevertheless, as intense, absurd, and tragic as it comes. A shot of Sofia walking away in Central Park, heartbreaking and hallucinatory, might be the saddest image in the film, martini or not.

But cryogenics as deus ex machina? It works for Crowe only slightly better than in Amenábar’s version. It’s kind of like the nuclear plot device Soderbergh resorts to in Ocean’s Eleven, except there the implausibility is just part of the self-conscious irrelevance of it all. Here, the sky is the limit, with an open-ended framing device that ranges from the crass to the cosmic. "Immortality as entertainment?" asks a character in a moment of revelation. In Vanilla Sky, we get equal helpings of both.

Issue Date: December 13 - 20, 2001

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