Vanilla Sky (2001)

Cameron Crowe’s work as a filmmaker has been a largely autobiographical working-out of themes central to his life: adolescence and rock’n’roll. At his best, he elicits a sweet yearning quality – a teenager’s crush on the brink of maturity – that quietly delineates the better aspirations of his subjects. He wrote “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in 1982 (which was from his own novel), and then wrote and directed “Say Anything” in 1989. If he’d done nothing else, those two films would be enough – they say everything that Crowe has to offer on teenagers and music. (I confess I haven’t seen “Almost Famous” (2000). It does seem strange that Crowe made that picture explicitly as an almost-biography – his work is never far from autobiography to begin with.)

Crowe remains the youngest correspondent in the history of Rolling Stone magazine. Throughout the 1970s, he covered rock bands – writing as an adolescent about adolescent subject matter (which is a great thing, in a way – it’s embarrassing reading otherwise intelligent critics trying to imbue nuance and meaning where none is intended.) He wasn’t (and isn’t) much of a writer, but he was appropriate for what he was doing – writing for teenagers about things that interested them. His latest movies have Crowe exploring adulthood, but they’re stuck in his teenage rut. He doesn’t have anything left to say.

“Vanilla Sky” is, in many ways, a sequel to Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire” – both movies star Tom Cruise playing himself, which is to say he plays a self-centered character trying to grow up. (Cruise is the ideal actor for Crowe, in this sense – neither of them can escape the narrow paths that define their abilities.) The difference is that while Crowe wrote “Jerry Maguire”, he didn’t exactly write “Vanilla Sky” (he adapted it from the original Spanish film “Abre Los Ojos”.) There’s not an ounce of sweetness in it. Offhand, it’s hard to think of a more oppressive, mean-spirited film I’ve seen recently. “Jerry Maguire” fell short in its central theme of a man embracing maturity largely because of Cruise’s limitations as an actor. The supporting cast went a long way toward endearing that movie to its audience, however. “Vanilla Sky” is more defined by the narcissism of its central character – the supporting cast is suspect for even tolerating Cruise, let alone loving him. There’s not a light note to be found.

Much has been trumpeted about the puzzle the film poses – how the overlapping plot lines and the leaps back and forth in time demand “effort” from the audience. It’s actually far more literal than it wants you to believe, and the big “surprise ending” is a great cheat. After all that Cruise’s character goes through, he is given a choice of 2 paths to take, which are supposedly representative of what’s been presented earlier. Without spoiling things, let’s just say that Cruise gets to have his cake and eat it, too. I was reminded of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) – a similarly “difficult” movie that had the audience and its main character constantly questioning what was real and what might be a dream. That movie ultimately had the courage to follow through to a shocking and logical conclusion that was practically transcendent – I spent days afterward re-evaluating everything in light of the final revelation. “Vanilla Sky” doesn’t even try for those heights – like the pop culture Crowe loves so much, it’s contentedly banal.

If there was justice in this world, Tom Cruise would be banned from making films after this. It’s not that his performance is so terrible – there isn’t a performance to evaluate. Cruise has been criticized in the past for his limited range of facial expression – he’s got a megawatt smile (which is oddly crooked), and he’s got a “furrowed brow” look that suffices for every other emotion. (Somehow, Crowe gets Cruise to wear a featureless latex mask through a good share of the movie. I’d applaud what seems like a great, subversive joke except that I’d be guilty of the same thing as the highbrow rock critics – lauding meaning where none was intended.) Cruise’s beefcake body always brings the ladies in, but the body is completely inappropriate for this character. A “daddy’s boy” as directionless and lazy as Cruise is supposed to be would be softer, with a layer of comfort padding him. Cruise’s main problem, however, is his voice. It’s oddly high and thin, and when he tries to add excitement or anger it just gets loud and shrill. Cruise lacks all of the traditional actor’s tools – he has little control of his body, and there’s no indication of thought happening behind that brow. He plays shallow, narcissistic characters most successfully, and struggles vainly to portray any other aspect of life. (He even tried, very publicly, to prove himself a method actor by actually falling in love offscreen with his love interest in the film, leaving his wife in the process. While this didn’t help him to act like he loved her more than himself in the movie, it did reinforce the impression that he, and his character, are jerks.) This all sounds harsh, but the bottom line is, the guy is making $20 million each picture – he hasn’t developed a craft and doesn’t look likely to. He has enough money to retire on, and if he does, we can all be spared future debacles of this sort.

Crowe should retire from films, as well. He seems unlikely to learn that pop culture can’t elucidate a world view that’s relevant to adults, because it doesn’t accommodate a moral perspective. “Vanilla Sky” is superficially about love, choices, and the illusion of beauty. Without a moral center (i.e. God in the picture) those themes are just fodder for cliché. In fact, the mechanism of the plot makes a big (apparently unconscious) statement about man being his own God, and the fact that Crowe doesn’t seem to recognize this is a statement in its own right. Crowe’s composition and camera work are borrowed from music videos, and frequently violate the point-of-view discipline that his central thesis should have (it shouldn’t stray from Cruise’s presence if the final explanation is to hold water.) There’s an ugly and obvious shot where Cruise and a girl are dressed and framed exactly like the album cover from Bob Dylan’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Lest we miss the point, Crowe holds the shot in a freeze-frame. And just to make sure we got it, he repeats the shot at the end, and superimposes the actual album cover on the image. Get it? It’s insulting and pedantic filmmaking.

Should anyone see this film? While I’m usually the first to defend any effort beyond the most basic exploitation picture, I certainly can’t recommend it. There is no insight to be gained, nothing uplifting, nothing technically redeeming to be found in this picture. For those who like going to movies “just to enjoy themselves”, I suspect they won’t. And if they do, that’s even more troublesome. As one of the worst movies of the year, perhaps of the decade, it marks a point of no return both for Cameron Crowe and for Tom Cruise. The fact that the movie is a big hit means they’ll both be back – and the world won’t be a richer place for it.

March 13, 2002