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'Vanilla Sky'

Crowe's romantic thriller is loaded with interesting subtexts

Friday, December 14, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The crucial element of "Vanilla Sky" may well be the casting of Tom Cruise as a man whose face is disfigured to the point that he sometimes covers it up with a generic plastic mask.

'Vanilla Sky'

RATING: R, for sexuality and strong language.

STARRING: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz.

DIRECTOR: Cameron Crowe.

WEB SITE: www.vanillasky.com



Few other male film stars exude so much recognition of their own comeliness. The way he wears his hair, the way he smiles that smile, there's that smirk in his eyes -- no, you can't take that away from him.

The vanity all but oozes from Cruise's character in the film, David Aames, who has so much money he doesn't have to give a damn. The woman in his bed, Julie Gianni, is played by Cameron Diaz, looking as radiant as a goddess and sexier than an entire hutch of Hugh Hefner playmates.

Then he steals his best friend's girl, Sofia, played by Penelope Cruz, whose charms are such that Cruise hooked up with her in real life and ditched wife Nicole Kidman, whom most men would die for, in the process. We should all have such options.

The Diaz character takes her revenge in the movie, as anyone who's seen the trailer knows. In my mind, I imagine Kidman in the role. Maybe that's getting too personal. Then again, the movie gives Cruise a scene in which he feels compelled to tell a man in a bar that he's straight. Yes, Tom, we know.

But it's clear early on that Aames can't explain many other things about his life. He keeps waking up from very lifelike and often bizarre dreams. Once he becomes disfigured, his existence starts to feel more like a nightmare. But what we're seeing isn't exactly real, either. It's not just that we're watching a movie. We're seeing scenes from David's life that, it turns out, he is relating to a psychologist of some sort (Kurt Russell) in some other place, sometime after they have happened.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who has created a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a 1999 Spanish film called "Open Your Eyes," filters the film through a number of other cues as well, most of them visual -- images on television sets and digital cameras, paintings and movie posters on the wall of David's apartment, characters framed in windows and even the apparently casual re-creation of a famous Bob Dylan album cover photo. In addition, music plays almost incessantly throughout the movie.

I can't say too much more about the story without giving things away. But the movie's emphasis on artificial images, ranging from David's dreams to the pop-culture references to the disfigurement of Cruise's face, points at a commentary on how our society manufactures illusions to the point where we not only believe them but even prefer them to real life.

Hollywood, after all, used to be known as the dream factory. In that sense, "Vanilla Sky" mines some of the same territory as David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," the difference being that Cameron Crowe is an eminently sane man.

Still, he may not have been the best choice to remake "Open Your Eyes." Crowe, considered a major filmmaker even though he has only made five movies, has heretofore specialized in romantic comedies that work in large part from because of Crowe's ability to create characters and dialogue rooted in reality. "Vanilla Sky" is also the director's first movie based on someone else's material.

Perhaps as a result, some of the more overheated scenes in the movie verge into histrionics, which may leave filmgoers with the same sort of vertigo that David Aames experiences in high places. "Vanilla Sky" keeps threatening to careen off the wire but weaves enough intriguing subtext to cushion the fall.

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