THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Vanilla Sky opens with one of the most incredible movie scenes I've ever witnessed. David Aames (Tom Cruise) drives to work and notices that Manhattan is strangely quiet. His car stops in the middle of Times Square and he gets out. Everything is lit up as usual, but there is one difference: it's absolutely deserted. There's not another single person in sight. David gets out of his car and runs down the street, surrounded by the area's famous razzle-dazzle, which plays to no one but him. The scene is amazing, but furthermore, it's no special effect: the filmmakers got permission to close off Times Square for the shot. It's a fitting introduction to a movie that is strange and disorienting, disturbing and weird all in one.

Tom Cruise freaks out on Cameron Diaz in Vanilla Sky
After that spectacular opening, we learn more about David Aames. He is superficial, a hotshot businessman who inherited his wealth and status. His board of directors think him a vacuous playboy, and David resents them for it. He is good with women, thinking nothing of toying with their emotions. He carries on a meaningless (to him) sexual affair with his "friend" Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), then tells a party guest whom he wants to impress that she is stalking him. That guest is Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz), and David wants her badly. He gets her too, although in ways he never expected; for perhaps the first time ever, David connects with someone and falls in love. Then Julie shows up outside Sofia's house as David is leaving one morning. She offers him a ride, exacting her revenge by driving the car off a bridge. David survives, but now wears a mask over his face to hide his injuries.

At this point, giving away plot details of Vanilla Sky becomes unfair. There are a lot of twists and turns that shouldn't be revealed ahead of time. What I can say without revealing too much is that David is accused of murder. The problem is, he's not sure if he's being accused of murdering Julie or Sofia. Furthermore, he insists there was never a murder to begin with. A police detective (Kurt Russell) questions him for answers.

Vanilla Sky is based on a 1997 Spanish language movie called Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). Its writer/director was Alejandro Amenabar, who hit our shores last summer with The Others. Penelope Cruz played the same role in both versions. This remake has been written and directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), who ventures into very different territory this time around.

The point of the movie is to disorient you. The story intentionally fragments itself, twisting back and forth in time, jumbling its varied plot elements until you no longer know which way is up. Basically, if you sit through most of this movie without a clue as to what's happening, the film is doing its job. At exactly the two hour mark, I looked at my watch and thought that the movie would never be able to explain everything to my satisfaction in the remaining fifteen minutes. Then it turned around and did just that. The explanation is spooky and ethereal. At first, it seems like it comes from way out in left field. Once I thought about it, though, it made perfect sense. Every piece of the story's puzzle gives you a clue. This is a story about David, how he changes, and why he changes. When the surprise revelation was made, I understood that Vanilla Sky wants to examine our perceptions of our own happiness, as well as what we will do to maintain those perceptions.

Tom Cruise has played characters like David Aames before, but he does it beautifully again. In Jerry Maguire, he portrayed an egotistical guy who changes once he finds the love of a good woman. The character in Vanilla Sky goes though a similar change for very different reasons. Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz are also good. Their roles are hard to categorize, except to say that both actresses take characters who are intentionally hazy and make that haziness crystal clear.

Cameron Crowe is one of my favorite filmmakers. Most of his pictures (including the aforementioned Jerry Maguire) are down-to-earth stories about everyday people. Vanilla Sky is most definitely not of this earth. He took a risk with this picture and the risk paid off. I have no doubt that some viewers will be frustrated with this movie. It is not the kind of thing that appeals to those who want literal plots. For me, though, Vanilla Sky took on a hypnotic quality. The less I understood it, the more I couldn't stop watching it. And when everything was finally explained, I found real meaning in the story.

( 1/2 out of four)

Vanilla Sky is rated R for sexuality and strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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