This review was corrected on December 12, 2001
A middling Tom Cruise vehicle as far as the general public is concerned, “Vanilla Sky” will surprise buffs for being a virtual scene-by-scene remake of the 1997 Spanish feature “Open Your Eyes” (Abre los ojos), albeit with a distinctly different tone. Mysterious tale of a dashingly handsome young man who is badly disfigured in an auto accident sails along for a while thanks to the intriguing setup and energetic, attractive cast. But like the original — only at considerably greater length — it ultimately heads into an elaborate mumbo-jumbo zone that strenuously plays head trips over familiar issues of reality vs. fantasy, who’s who and what characters are alive or dead. With Cruise alone being used to sell the picture in a campaign that offers not the slightest hint of what the film is like or about, Paramount can expect strong initial B.O. to level off to ultimate midrange results based on likely heavily mixed aud reactions.
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Strikingly well made even as it became frustratingly muddled toward the end, “Open Your Eyes” opened the floodgates in a remarkable way for its director and co-writer Alejandro Amenabar; based on Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s enthusiasm for it, the young Spanish helmer sold the remake rights to Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, and snared Kidman to star in his next picture, “The Others,” the sleeper hit of this past summer.
Oddly, Cameron Crowe, Cruise’s cohort on the massively successful “Jerry Maguire,” became involved to adapt and direct the “Eyes” remake: Oddly in that Crowe’s renown is based first and foremost on his talents as an original screenwriter. Perhaps realizing that to begin reshuffling Amenabar’s complicated structure would bring down the whole deck of cards, Crowe scarcely touched it, changing only minor details, retaining important key dialogue and making his most significant contribution by moving the mood away from dark weirdness to one drenched in modern mores and rock ‘n’ roll. Plotwise, if you’ve seen “Open Your Eyes,” you’ve seen “Vanilla Sky.”
In kinetic, narcissistic high gear, Cruise convincingly plays David Aames, a devil-may-care New Yorker who has inherited a fortune and a publishing empire to which he pays cursory attention, can barely walk across a room without stumbling over all the women who prostrate themselves at his feet and relishes the idea of commitment about as much as he enjoys heights, his one phobia.
As did the original, pic opens with Penelope Cruz intoning the words “abre los ojos,” then indicates there will be two levels of “reality” at work, as David emerges one morning to find Manhattan utterly devoid of life, then pic rewinds to have him make the same drive through a city full of the usual activity. In a sudden flash-forward shortly thereafter, David, his face now hidden behind a mask, is seen under the care of therapist McCabe (Kurt Russell), who reveals that David has been charged with murder.
Although David pointedly did not invite occasional bed partner Julie (Cameron Diaz) to his birthday party, she turns up anyway at the festivities populated by dozens of great looking women as well as, in a cameo, Steven Spielberg. The host’s best friend Brian (Jason Lee) brings along another looker, Sofia (Cruz, playing the same role she essayed in the original), whom David playfully enlists to help keep Julie at bay and later takes home. In a paroxysm of unrequited love, Julie then manages to get David in her car and promptly drives the two of them off a bridge.
A few months and operations later, the previously beautiful David emerges with a badly scarred and somewhat distorted face, and dreams that it can be reconstructed back to normal. He resumes pursuing Sofia, who remains friendly but at arm’s length, and he eventually flips out, casting his mask off in a drunken nightclub frenzy and passing out on a downtown street.
Suddenly, all is normal again: David’s face is perfect and Sofia takes him to bed, until it’s abruptly Julie in his bed claiming to be Sofia and taking her place even in the latter’s personal photographs. During an intense sex bout, David becomes unhinged and would appear to kill Sofia/Julie, is declared deranged by McCabe and eventually ends up in the offices of a creepy company that specializes in cryonization, or putting people in the deep freeze until some distant date when they will be thawed and brought back to life.
“Open Your Eyes” had a similarly mystifying final act that ultimately proved needlessly obscure, and Crowe has gone to some lengths to try to explain what happens so the audience won’t go out totally flummoxed. Nonetheless, the temptation to tune out of what’s going on is too great to resist, especially since some of the more arresting aspects of the original have been softened along the way, moves that make “Vanilla Sky,” like its title, more bland and less provocative.
Unsurprisingly, the lead character’s facial deformity has been made much less grotesque in the Hollywood version. In the Spanish film, his post-accident face made him resemble the Elephant Man’s brother and quite difficult to look at; Cruise, by contrast, is allowed to look banged up but not utterly unsightly.
More significantly, however, the character of Julie has been made so nice that her actions no longer make sense. In the original, the character was a weird one-night-stand who became a scary stalker, a screws-loose witch who seemed entirely capable of doing herself in and taking the rich young man with her. Here, Diaz plays her as a sort of lovable kook who’s just terribly disappointed that one of Gotham’s most eligible bachelors has escaped her grasp; as written and played, her willingness to end it all (which itself is fudged in the staging) is simply unconvincing.
Not only unbelievable but annoying as well are the cultural artifacts with which Crowe has surrounded David. There is nothing in the man’s character to explain why he’d be interested in the giant French “Jules and Jim” and “Breathless” posters that prominently adorn his apartment. And while David does seem like a rock ‘n’ roll kind of guy — not unlike a grown-up version of Cruise’s character in “Risky Business,” in fact — the fetishism here goes so far that it begins to reflect what we know of Crowe much more than it illuminates anything about David.
Crowe made it abundantly clear in “Almost Famous” how much he loves music, but the 40-plus pop tunes that wallpaper the picture (in overly familiar fashion at times), plus the John Coltrane hologram “playing” at his party, the genuflection in front of a framed, busted-up Pete Townshend guitar and the irrelevant homages to Dylan and Bjork, just for starters, seem like an obsession being pursued to vastly diminishing returns. There’s a time and place for everything, but enough already.
That said, the picture has vitality, a fine cast and excellent craft. Playing a callow fellow whose fate pushes him to varied emotional extremes, Cruise is switched on at all times and quite credible as a superficial guy sincerely trying to go deep. Cruz, who has never seemed comfortable acting in English, at least comes across as more at ease here than in any of her previous Hollywood efforts, although she doesn’t glow with the great radiance and inviting warmth she emitted in “Open Your Eyes.”
Lee as David’s easygoing novelist buddy, Timothy Spall as David’s intensely loyal attorney, Tilda Swinton as the supremely assured head of the cryonics firm and Noah Taylor, as a strange company spokesman who explains all, bring strength and distinction to the supporting cast.
Production values are rich in all departments, notably Catherine Hardwicke’s production design, which is especially fine in its detailing of David’s lavish apartment, and John Toll’s lustrous lensing. Final scene, set on the roof of a midtown skyscraper, not only extensively shows the late World Trade Center towers looming downtown, but the Statue of Liberty sitting smack-dab in the Hudson River.