Vanilla Sky Redux

by Jack Cheng

Mon 21 Jul 2003 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Reviews | Leave a Comment

Vanilla Sky is told from the point of view of David Aames, a good looking (hey, he’s Tom Cruise!), millionaire (his father published TV Guide!), playboy (Cameron Diaz swallowed his cum — that means something!) who is not without his dark moments (his parents killed by a drunk driver!). Instead of a bat flying through his window to give direction to his life, this Bruce Wayne meets the batty Sofia Serrano, played by Penelope Cruz, and everything changes.

This is not a film review. The point of this essay is to trash the movie to explain how it could have (should have!) been better. So consider that your spoiler warning, combined with my opinion that this movie isn’t really worth watching in its current form anyway.

Right. So the movie is told from the point of view of David. So that first part, where he runs through an empty Times Square, turns out to be a dream. Once he’s really woken up, refreshed from having just fucked his casual friend Cameron Diaz four times, he starts his day with a tennis game against buddy Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), and then to the publishing empire where he has to deal with a disapproving Board of Directors. Subtext: life is fun — but it’s hard, too.

Then there’s the plot they showed in the trailers. He has a birthday party, but didn’t invite poor Cameron. Brian brings Sofia to the party as his date and she catches David’s eye. And he hers. David shows Sofia his toys, like his Monet (his mother loved the “Vanilla Sky”) and then takes Sofia home and is amazed by her lack of “guile.” The lack of guile is apparently manifested in her childlike personality — she’s like a sexy fourteen year old who doesn’t speak English all that well: Is this every man’s fantasy? It’s David’s.

Having spent a chaste night talking with Sofia, David leaves to find Cameron waiting for him. She offers him a lift, and possibly more, and he avails himself. Cameron then goes into a jealous, suicidal rage and smashes the car into a wall.

Turns out she’s killed herself, and thoroughly disfigured half of David’s face, and injuring his arm. He becomes a recluse, and when he finally decides to go out again, it’s to meet Sofia at a dance club. She brings Brian. After getting too drunk, David watches his friends leave, and chasing after them, sees them embrace (she was originally Brian’s date, after all).

This part of the story is told in flashbacks as a psychologist (Kurt Russell) questions David in a holding cell. Apparently David has been charged with a murder.

The rest of the movie goes back and forth between the present/future and the past and David’s face goes from disfigured to normal and back again. Stranger still, Cameron Diaz is presented as Julie the crazy “fuck buddy” and then as Sofia, the imbecile ballet dancer. Which one of them has a mole on her breast? Does David actually tie her up? cut her up? smother her? And whom did he kill? And what’s going on?

What’s going on is that David is fantasizing. A company called Life Extensions (LE) has developed a system to cryogenically freeze people. Apparently David signed up with L.E. for their special Lucid Dream program that allows his subconscious to create an incoherent flashback ridden movie. No wait, that’s not the intention, but something has gone wrong with David’s program. How can this be? Where did the dream begin? A helpful L.E. tech support tells David that soon after the debacle at the night club, he managed to buy out his board of directors and remake his father’s company, but then committed suicide (you know he’s telling the truth because he has an English accent; no dumb ‘spic he).

The tech points out other elements of the dream: the image of David and Sofia on the street in New York was a subconscious visual “quote” from a Bob Dylan album cover, the laughing Sofia is just like that poster of Jules et Jim in David’s apartment, the sky happens to be Vanilla, and the person he is convicted of killing is himself. Whoa. But what actually happened after my death?, asks David. Well, the tech continues, we recovered your body, your buddy Brian held a three day memorial to you and Sofia came by. She came in long enough to hear two tracks of music being played simultaneously (David had suggested this on their first [and only] night together), smiled and left. Apparently, the tech says, she was as touched by your encounter as you were.

Finally, given a choice between rebooting the dream program and waking up, David chooses wakefulness. A voice calls to him: “Open your eyes!”

That’s what we’re given. There are some fine supporting performances by Jason Lee and Cameron Diaz, and Tom Cruise does all right with a what is basically a shallow and boring and corrupt character. But the movie falls far short of its potential.

Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of this re-make of “Abre los ojos” (Open Your Eyes) seems to have forgotten that this is a science fiction/psychological thriller disguised as a romance and not an actual romance. Just when things could have gotten interesting, he drops the ball.

I have no problem with the structure and storytelling, but the theme seems to have been lost. The movie is not about love at first sight. It’s not about loving an ugly man. It’s about fantasy and dreaming. And it could have been a great movie about fantasy and dreaming if Crowe had pushed it some more.

David is an incredibly shallow man who gets anything he wants because he’s young, rich and good-looking. And his fantasies are just as good looking — and just as shallow. The reference to the Bob Dylan photo was excellent, but there should have been more. It would have been a dicey proposition to fill a half hour of screen time with visual quotes if it was obvious to the audience, but Crowe is smart enough that he could have done it (and just think what sort of repeat business and DVD sales he could have racked up for that sequence alone). He could have found the set of “Cheers” and filmed the bar scene from an angle never shown on TV — and then, in the reveal, pulled back to see the cheesy lack of imagination. Have had Brian, Sofia and David physically mimic a scene from “Jules et Jim” but given them different dialogue and a different context. Re-make the magazine stand scene from “Singles” and made all the magazines flicker with the problem posed to David at his last day at work: yellow or white logo? Show the mole on the breast of a Playboy pin-up David found when he was thirteen.

At the risk of seeming too insularly pop culture, this sequence could have been the cinematic equivalent of Picasso channeling Goya and Braque and Leger and Velasquez. And if done well, it would have kicked Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” in the ass.

The reveal sequence would have been more surprising, more disconcerting and more subversive than “The Sixth Sense.” The audience would be forced to consider: how did I miss that! and, no wonder it looked so familiar! and (worst of all) wouldmy “lucid dream” consist of images I’ve seen on television? Do I have the capacity to invent an architectural form? Do my sexual fantasies consist of wanting to star in someone else’s pornographic stories? The impact would be simultaneously tragic and comical — and provocative. Perhaps our visions are limited and we need to read more, see more movies, open our eyes to other people’s imaginations in order to expand our own.

The other important change would have to be ruining Sofia. Cameron Diaz is gorgeous and sexy and available and David doesn’t want her because he knows her too well. Sofia is the opposite, an unknown that David is free to project his fantasies and desires onto. As a ballet dancer, though, there’s a good chance that she’s actually bulimic and promiscuous. And as much as director Crowe tries to sell her to us as perfect (it is David’s point of view, after all), there’s little reciprocal good will towards David. We’re expected to like him because he’s Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, we don’t. It would have been great if there were more scenes of Sofia with David’s friend Brian:

He thinks everything is his for the taking!
But not you?
Love is not something that you take, it is something that you give.
They kiss passionately.
Then at the memorial service, the strange music is playing — only David and Sofia knew about this, did he specify this in his funeral arrangements? The thought of his desperate fixation is so pathetic it makes Sofia cry. Shaking her head — what did he think we meant after only a few hours together? Brian nods in understanding — my buddy David invested a lot of his fantasy life on those few hours.

Open your eyes, Mr. Crowe. This is not a love story, it’s a story of infatuation. The infatuation that allowed Cameron Diaz’s character to imagine a relationship and then destroy it. The infatuation that gave David a reason to re-enter public life with an imperfect face. It’s a story about our love of fantasy and the limits of that fantasy in bringing true happiness.


Leave a Reply