by Del Harvey
“Every second of your life is another chance to turn it around.”
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Sixties psychobabble or lucid insight into the working unconscious of the modern human? Hippie manifesto or pragmatic dogma from a fortune cookie? With the substantial paranoia and dawning awareness that we are all one people connected by fiber optic links to a hidden universe behind our eyes, writer/director Cameron Crowe has remade the 1997 Spanish thriller Abre los Ojos with an updating that blasts through the brain-roof of contemporary man with a vision of a future we might not all want to see.
Now, am I going to explain that? I’m not sure I can without giving the film away. Suffice it to say the film is about love, obsession, fear, transformation, indifference, trust, beauty, and dreams. And, with the certain knowledge that Dennis Hopper’s truth-spouting, paranoia-babbling photojournalist from Apocalypse Now has the best paraphrased description of this film, I quote: “One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions—what are you going to land on—one-quarter, three-eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics.”
How can I tell you what the film is about without giving it away? Let me just forewarn you that you should tell all your friends to keep the last half of the film to themselves. Crowe and his superb cast have fashioned a fine conundrum which should be ingested by each viewer and opened like that magical fortune cookie—an experience we live over and over and which should retain the simple joy of surprise in not knowing what the words will say about us. There is nothing mystical or bizarre in the telling of this film; it should remain an individual experience only to be shared after the viewer has watched the film.
Vanilla Sky is about everything you’ve seen in the trailer: bright young man with the world in his lap losing his grip on reality when a moment’s misjudgment causes irreconcilable changes in his life and those most close and dear to him. Like Alice, he goes down the hole, but we are not handed that analogy freely; that is, thankfully, left for us to figure out. His confusion about his own life is stunningly presented on the screen through the transformation from original film to Crowe’s updated script to Crowe’s direction and the final production wrought by a great cast and vital cinematography.
Now, asking me to review any film starring Tom Cruise is like asking Wally to be nice to the Beav; he will do it, but it’s not his primal instinct. I have to admit that Cruise has turned in a fantastic performance, and one which far surpasses anything he has done before. In fact, after his character has experienced the accident is when Cruise’s talents really shine. This is the moment when, I believe, Cruise is truly thrown a challenge and rises to it beautifully. Similarly, Cameron Diaz, who is often given the role of ditzy blonde, is immensely compelling as Julie, the obsessive “fuck buddy.” Penelope Cruz portrays the One True Love and is impish and childlike and as charming as this type of fairy tale character should be. Jason Lee, of Chasing Amy and Almost Famous, turns in another dazzling performance as the All-Forgiving Best Friend (he really deserves a decent starring role).
The supporting cast is bolstered by some surprises, including Kurt Russell (Tombstone, Escape From L.A.), playing a Gregory Peck-like psychologist who tries to help Cruise remember his life. In forming this character Russell shows us what a very fine actor he is, convincing us of his sensitivity and compassion. Alicia Witt and Tilda Swinton pop up in cameos of small import for no apparent reason other than to be a part of the film. Of course, when you have talent running throughout your production, the production typically benefits.
And Crowe’s excellent script adaptation and direction must surely be praised. I am a huge fan of Almost Famous and Say Anything. I am less impressed with Jerry Maguire and never saw Singles, but feel strongly that he is fast becoming one of the more important directors working today. With music composition by Nancy Wilson of Heart, and cinematography by John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, Almost Famous), Vanilla Sky is one of the better films of the year.
And that is my review. That’s it, that’s all I can say specifically about the film. About the only thing I can add is this: “This is the way the fucking world ends…Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, Jack.”—The Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper), Apocalypse Now
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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