Rated R - Running Time: 2:25 - Released 12/14/01

The "vanilla sky" in Vanilla Sky refers to a Monet painting owned by the main character, but in a larger sense it is used as a metaphor for a life free of pain or difficulty, a dreamlike, ethereal realm where one is cradled in the warm hues of perpetual summer sunset. The film, on the other hand, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, based on the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (or "Open Your Eyes") by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil, does not evoke such comfortable feelings. Starring Tom Cruise as the shallow, fabulously wealthy, Monet-owning New York City playboy whose sky changes to a number of different colors before it's all over, it is a seriously weird and intriguing psychological drama.

Cruise is the eminently unlikable David Aames, whose regular practice of using and discarding friends and lovers is just slightly less annoying than the fact that he is the sole heir of a multi-million-dollar magazine publishing company founded by his legendarily successful, now-deceased father. The only two bothersome things in David's life are the company's board of directors, who have rightly surmised that he's a worthless party boy and a drain on the company's resources, and the fact that he is plagued by recurring nightmares of being alone in the biggest city in the world. But David's problems increase when he unceremoniously drops his friend and sex partner Julie (Cameron Diaz) in favor of the exotic and mysterious Sofia (Penélope Cruz), whom he meets at a party when she is brought there by his only "real friend," Brian (Jason Lee). Emerging the morning after from Sofia's apartment, David is confronted on the street by Julie, whose obsession with him has moved from playful jealousy to overt stalking. Getting in her car with her, he tries to negotiate his way out of guilt, but soon the desperate girl starts driving recklessly while lecturing him about commitment. Careening out of control off a bridge, she kills herself and disfigures David, leaving him with a torn, scarred face which causes his few friendships (including that of Sofia and Brian) to dry up.

But that's just the beginning of David's trouble. Before he knows it, he's arrested for murder, and his case seems to depend on whether his court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell), can prove whether his bad dreams are controlling him to the point of dementia. During countless therapy sessions in which he wears a latex mask over his face, David must dredge up unpleasant memories, psychotic delusions, and recurring visions of mysterious people whom he doesn't know but who seem to have some sort of control over him, so that Dr. McCabe can get to the bottom of his problem.

This scenario sounds like that of a simple garden-variety crime drama or any episode of The Practice, but Amenábar's story and Crowe's interpretation take it fully into the realm of science fiction. Exploring the depth and breadth of the subconscious and the intriguing Freudian territory of the meaning of dreams, it brings into question whether anything David experiences is real, including the accident, the disfigurement, and his conviction and therapy. Cruise barely accomplishes the difficult task of making us care about an unsympathetic character; David is not the kind of guy you'd want on your speed dial, but it becomes clear that he is not in complete control of his irresponsible actions. Cruz, reprising her role from Amenabar's film, is adequately soft and sexy, and Diaz, while Cruise's equal in shallowness of character during the early portion of the film, ends up being a tragic figure haunting his disturbed mind. At nearly 2½ hours, this film is longer than necessary, but Crowe's deft dramatic sense helps to forgive his unwillingess to edit. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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