The Good: Imagery, Moments of mystery, Jason Lee
The Bad: Lack of quality acting, Poorly established plot elements, Lack of empathetic characters
The Basics: When David Aames survives a car accident with a stalker-type, his life is thrown into chaos he - and the audience - cannot explain in Vanilla Sky.
I am told that Cameron Crowe is one of the cinematic genius' of our time, at least as far as the cinema is concerned. My only outing in his realm, so far, is Vanilla Sky and based on that I think his reputation is overblown. Terry Gilliam, P.T. Anderson and Kevin Smith effortlessly come to mind as better directors creating more meaningful and lasting films. If Vanilla Sky is Crowe's triumph, then his reputation is overblown; I shall suspend judgment on that until I experience at least one other film of his.
Vanilla Sky is the somewhat gnarled story of publishing executive David Aames. Aames appears to be on the top of the world, possessing what any man could want; he is a successful businessman with a blonde in his bed and money to throw around. Yet, it appears he was disfigured and as he awaits trial, he is interrogated by a psychologist. Dr. McCabe attempts to get to the root of the problem and through a series of narrated flashbacks, Aames reveals his story. Apparently, the blonde (Julie) that Aames appears emotionally involved with at the beginning is actually a stalker and Aames uses a chance meeting with Sofia to try to escape her. What follows is a confused accounting of how Sofia and Julie overlap in Aames' mind following an accident that Aames is in, disfiguring his face. The story becomes more confused by the questionable existence of Sofia, the uncertain memories of the status of Aames' face and the inexplicably erratic behavior of Aames' best friend, Brian. As Aames tumbles toward his trial, all of the elements come together and the truth is set before him.
The problem is that Vanilla Sky is presented poorly, where details are handed out as a matter of convenience. Imagine a murder mystery where it takes half the movie to reveal who was murdered, then another half hour to bother to reveal how it happened and then in the last five minutes, the murderer is simply identified. Vanilla Sky feels like that; it is a movie that does not allow the viewer to piece together all of the important imagery, instead withholding the essential elements until they are fully explained.
Without revealing the important "secret" of Vanilla Sky's ending, I will give an example. The character that ultimately gives Aames all of the answers he seeks, Edmund Ventura, is not introduced until the last half hour. He is seen once before then, but his significance is unknown at the time. Moreover, without having planted the advertisement that Aames ultimately uses to make the connections near the end, the audience is cheated of putting together the significance of Ventura's presence before his purpose is simply presented.
Vanilla Sky sets in front of the viewer various nightmare images without any sense of reason to them. The reason is simply given at the end, but the revelation comes with no sense of satisfaction because the viewer has stopped caring long before the end comes. Instead of the explanation being a catharsis where the viewer says, "Of course" or "Okay. Now it's all better," there is a sense of "eh. I suppose I could have seen it coming" or "So." The point being, any sense of being engaged with the protagonist is lost because the viewer simply experiences his delusions instead of having the ability to solve it with him. That is to say that we are trapped in Aames' limited sight instead of being able to be like Dr. McCabe and put it all together.
The lack of catharsis and caring is only suspended by a series of beautiful images. The vanilla sky in the film - an allusion to a Monet painting - radiates like nothing else, making the landscape the characters are in easily watchable. And Jason Lee does an excellent job, despite the fact that his character is poorly and erratically written. Lee handles it professionally, expressing the varied emotions he is forced to put out there.
Outside Lee, the acting is lacking in anything of value. Penelope Cruz continues to baffle me. Her celebrity is not supported by her performances in Woman On Top, Blow or this. Instead, she seems bland and generic, a form that fills the Hollywood ideal without having genuine substance or talent. Cameron Diaz, similarly, does little in Vanilla Sky besides bug out her eyes and attempt to be freaky. She lacks, however, the gravity to pull of a truly terrifying stalker-type and that is what the role of Julie seems to need. In short, she is just not intense enough to seem at all realistic.
Tom Cruise could be replaced by pretty much anyone as David Aames. I'm unsure what it was he was supposed to bring to this role. Aames is supposed to embody success and without knowing who Cruise is, the audience would miss out on that important aspect of the character. That is to say if one went into Vanilla Sky without knowing what a huge star Tom Cruise already was, the role of David Aames would be lacking any sense of the celebrity Aames is supposed to embody. Noah Taylor, who plays Ventura, has equal potential for the same connotations without the off-screen knowledge.
Whenever one has to step outside the actual work to put together all of the implications of the character, it becomes problematic. That's one of many problems with Vanilla Sky. In the end, the movie makes sense, but without the cheap exposition of the end, there is no way for the viewer to make the movie comprehensible on their own. Ultimately, Crowe fails to create an engaging movie and instead makes one that is, at best, beautiful. In this case, it is not enough.
For other films that bend reality, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
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© 2011, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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