"Almost Famous" was Cameron Crowe's deeply felt ode to rock and roll. A personal journey that I found to be the best film of 2000. In keeping with the rock theme, "Vanilla Sky" (IMDb listing) could be considered Crowe's cover version of the Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 mind-bender "Open Your Eyes." Reteaming with his "Jerry Maguire" star Tom Cruise, Crowe has taken the lukewarm original vision and twisted it into a thoroughly bizarre, yet unmercifully enthralling picture. No more "Show Me The Money!" It's now "Show Me The Psychotic Episode!"
David Aames (Tom Cruise) is an unapologetic, filthy rich playboy who heads a publishing empire and enjoys life to the fullest. At his birthday party, David, through his best friend Brian (Jason Lee), meets Sofia (Penelope Cruz). The two have instant chemistry, and David begins to have real feelings of love for her, something which angers Julie (Cameron Diaz), an old flame. Julie invites David into her car for a ride one afternoon, and promptly crashes it, killing her and disfiguring David. Dazed and confused, David must learn to live again with his disfigurement, and also confront his reality. A reality that is quickly spinning out of his control and heading toward dementia.
This was written and directed by Cameron Crowe? The same Cameron Crowe who brought us the sweet "Say Anything," the time capsule "Singles," the brilliant "Jerry Maguire," and the classic "Almost Famous"? Movies all made with such spirit and honesty that it almost hurts to watch them. Well, "Vanilla Sky" is about as extreme a left turn as a filmmaker can make these days. It's an extending, hallucinogenic movie that succeeds only because Crowe is taking such a leap of faith.
The higher aspirations for "Vanilla Sky" set Crowe's imagination afire. Taking on bigger topics such as the media-suffocating world and the true consequences of casual sex, Crowe's loftier ambitions with "Vanilla Sky" are miles away from his usual territory of optimism and love. It's a change that I wasn't comfortable with at first, but soon realized that this stretching of the artistic muscles seems to suit Crowe. A director with an incredible gift for visuals (the opening scene set in a completely abandoned Times Square is a knockout) and music placement (Crowe even includes a long forgotten Monkees tune "The Porpoise Song" in his kaleidoscope of a soundtrack), Crowe takes the audience on a journey of multiple realities this time out. A place where all might not be as it seems. Dangerous, even for a man who once asked Eddie Vedder to act, but the new direction opens Crowe up in an all-new light. Though I would be disappointed if he completely dropped his heartfelt stories that shaped the foundation of his career, I can rest assured that he can hold his own with even the most peculiar of stories.
Enlisting Tom Cruise into the fold is a stroke of genius, since the actor seems to be most comfortable under Crowe's direction. "Vanilla Sky" asks a lot of Cruise. It forces him to act with heavy prosthetics for the first time in his career and the character also confronts the very golden boy image that Cruise spent the better part of the last decade trying to bury six feet under. Hyper, convincing, and brutally committed, Cruise takes the challenge of "Vanilla Sky" very seriously. He comes away with an enriching performance that rivals the best work of his career. It helps to have great backup as well from actors the likes of Lee, Cruz, Diaz, Kurt Russell, Noah Taylor and Timothy Spall. It may seem from the opening that this is a no-brainer role for Cruise. Just wait. As the narrative mire becomes deeper, the intensity of his performance grows with each passing minute.
While it is a remake (and a pretty straight one at that), "Vanilla Sky" does have many hurdles to cross that Amenabar's "Open Your Eyes" didn't even need to consider. With a bigger star and a budget roughly 60 times larger, Crowe and Cruise have to be very careful to make sure the audience doesn't begin to lose interest in the jigsaw puzzle story. They clarify the plot more efficiently than Amenabar did, and they don't leave the public cold in the end as the original did. "Open Your Eyes" was a scrappier, less involving yarn, as it had less at stake, and that was the very reason I didn't respond to it. "Vanilla Sky" is more urgent with its drama, more interested in keeping the story moving and not relying on the third act twist that propels this tale from being merely a brain-tickler to a full out acid trip. "Sky" is not an easy film to like, and for a big-budget holiday picture, seems and often acts as uncommercial as they come. Yet under all the deranged images, all the nightmare narrative and all the unsightly Tom Cruise, there is a motion picture that does the unthinkable. It is actually quite better than the film it's remaking.
We all want change from our favorite filmmakers, right? To see growth in talent and audacity in project selection? Well, all the needless worrying can stop as "Vanilla Sky" is a solid entry from Cameron Crowe and promises some more changes of pace in the future. As long as he continues to have his heart buried somewhere beneath all the madness, we have nothing to worry about.
Filmfodder Grade: A