This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is gonna be a dual review that critiques both Vanilla Sky and Abre Los Ojos . I decided that the only way to truly talk about one was to talk about the other. I can understand if you think it is a bit off-topic.
I have never been so disappointed in a film. I’m gonna come straight out and say that Cameron Crowe is a great director. And he is a great director. But Vanilla Sky was not the film for Crowe. I mean even Steven Soderbergh messed up with Kafka so I’m not gonna say Crowe’s career is over. Far from it. This is just not the right film for his sensibilities. Much the way Spielberg was all wrong for A.I.
He fills the film with flashy techniques he has never used before and it shows. The ending shot when Cruise jumps up on the ledge is thrilling but also overkill. The worst scene though is the back and forth edits between Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz (who, as much as I hate to admit it, is the best thing about the film) during the sex scene. That is not in Abre Los Ojos and it is flashy and it makes clear what is more understated and powerful and crucial inAbre Los Ojos .
Having just watched both films back to back something becomes abundantly clear. Vanilla Sky is WAY too aware of its cleverness (it can be argued that Abre Los Ojos is too but I believe that to be part the tone of that film.). At every turn, we have flashy camera tricks, forced moments (a silly nod to Jerry Maguire-like awkwardness [“I’m gonna go to work” + plus toothy grin = bleech] is just…well, awkward), and cliche metaphors and unintentionally extraneous dialogue (Cruise’s “I’m straight” line comes to mind…) and the end result is something that resembles a thoughtful, complex puzzler but is really just a beautiful mess.
Point one. The dialogue is classic Crowe.
It is both reflective and studied awareness. It is beautiful and yet disarmingly cliche in places. But mostly it is just out of place. Lines like Cruz’s “She looks like the saddest girl to ever hold a martini” is great but tonally all wrong. Crowe tries to marry his romantic comedy sensibilities to a character driven thought piece and just isn’t capable of it. The line comes off forced and over-the-top just because of its existence in the wrong kind of film (having nothing to do with Cruz’ very good performance). Same with the stupid a** line “I see you in another life when we are cats” or something to that effect. That Crowe’s impulse for Tom Cruise to laugh at the line means it should have been cut in the first place.
Point two. Tom Cruise is woefully miscast.
Other than Magnolia Cruise has never fully become a character before and that is essential to this story. In both versions, the protagonist is a loathsome lothario who is somehow redeemed as he finds out what is really happening in his head. Cruise plays David like he played his earlier roles, with plenty of swagger and not an ounce of intention, weight, or honesty. Part of the problem is that much of the distress is placed into the real world scenes and not into the discussions with the psychologist as in Abre Los Ojos.
In Vanilla Sky the emphasis seems to be on just how weird all this can be, and in Abre Los Ojos the emphasis is on how each time we come back to the prison sequence we have gotten more insight into Cesar (David in our version) and it becomes more fascinating. But in Vanilla Sky Cruise seems forced to go over the top and yet sound so mannered (esp. in the doctor scene where he is given the mask).
Unfortunately, I think this is the kind of role that requires less of the movie star baggage. Or at least a movie star who can convincingly become his character. Tom Cruise, as good as he is, is not that actor. I can’t help wondering how much better (but still not perfect…remember, it is poorly written) this would have been if Billy Crudup were in the role or Jason Patric. Admittedly, that is unfair but Cruise is a disaster and as much as I wanna blame it on the script (and I will, partly) he, as a producer, should have known better.
Point three. Focus.
Crowe has turned a beautiful study of the ambiguity of conscious vs. subconscious into a vanity piece. What made Abre Los Ojos work despite its “let’s explain the film” ending, is that Cesar is completely incapable of distinguishing reality from dream and that pain and anguish is felt in those scenes in the prison with the psychologist. Because in the end the irony is that the one constant, the prison and the psychologist, is also a dream. Thus subtly driving home the point of “where is the line between our conscious and subconscious.”
Eduardo Norieaga, as Cesar, has a simmering kind of anger that, as the film progresses, becomes true despair. He has no clue if he killed Nuria (the fuckbuddy, played with dizzying weight by Najwa Nimri) or Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and though we never get a clue who it is he killed, we know that it is tearing him up just by the way those scenes are short, intense, and darkly comic.
But in Vanilla Sky all of the anguish is felt in the real life scenes, here elongated and not well. We get a drunken Tom Cruise (in yet another elongated scene) overacting and being obnoxious. We get countless scenes of Cruise pacing while giving overtly silly speeches (like in the the drunken scene and with the doctors). And we get added scenes of the business world which, admittedly, are lacking in Abre Los Ojos but here only serve to make Cruise seem as big as Crowe, as writer, infer’s Cesar was in Abre Los Ojos . It comes across as contrived and overkill. Cruise’s swagger is more than enough macho posturing, why corporatize it? And of course we get all the long looks in the mirror. What makes it worse is that Tom Cruise has not really aged all that well. Besides the point, right? No, this is exactly the point. This makes the film seem like Cruise’s last ditch effort to be seen as a masculine alpha male, but the combination of that Freudian slip (“I’m straight”) and the mirror preening, Tom seems like a peacock strutting around wondering why he, of all people must turn 40 soon.
While Kurt Russell is quite good (and nice to see him back), his character is muted in the film and it dilutes the true central relationship and ultimately his performance becomes all wrong. In Abre Los Ojos the only person Cesar really interacts with is the psychologist and the weight is felt at the end when he is truly shown to be a figment of his imagination. Sofia, in both films, is an ideal. She is not a character, per se. And Penelope Cruz’s portrayals in both films is truly superb because she is lilting and coy (without being obnoxious) and not easily impressed and that makes her all the more beguiling to Cesar/David.
But in Vanilla Sky that true central relationship is never established because Crowe makes the crushing decision to make Russell’s psychologist too removed from the relationship…he is supposed to have dinner (or lunch…I don’t remember exactly) with his two daughters. But then he is more interested in the “crime” than David’s mind. In Abre Los Ojos the two daughters thing is a passing reference to another patient and the psychologist becomes enraptured by Cesar’s seeming psychosis.
Ultimately, at the end Russell’s psychologist pleads for understanding and it just seems silly. Whereas in Abre Los Ojos the psychologist is angry at the notion that he isn’t real. Again, the line between conscious and subconscious is blurred.
Both films suffer from a strange desire to explain everything at the end of the film. And both waste perfectly good cast members (Fele Martinez and Jason Lee as the best friend). And both structurally can’t bear the weight of their ideals. Part of this I believe (esp. in Crowe’s case) is that they are misreading their own ideas or perhaps underestimating the subtext and just trying to appease an audience, who gets sunrises and universe disaster averted endings from Hollywood, they also underestimate. Crowe’s is more offensive because he misread or underestimated someone else’s film and then tried to make it over, diluting the best elements and focusing on all the wrong ones.
Since I did see the original first, it is entirely possible that I was never gonna like Vanilla Sky but I highly doubt it. Admittedly, reviewing it against Abre Los Ojos might make Vanilla Sky seem doubly bad. But really it only illuminates the elements of the film that I think people who didn’t like it are seeing. Feel free to totally disagree…as I’m sure you will. Maybe you liked it being a vanity piece and less intriguing but I didn’t.
Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky gets 2 stars, one for each actress. Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos gets 4 stars.