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Vanilla Guys
by Lucius Shepard
December 16, 2001

To rail against Tom Cruise the actor (a petty crime I admit to indulging in) is rather like protesting the existence of pudding. He's ubiquitous, not in the least nourishing, but essentially harmless—so what's the point? As a dress-up doll, Cruise is fine. See Tom the Master Spy in shades and black leather. See Tom the dread vampire Lestat in what appears to be Adam Ant's cast-off wardrobe. See Tom the Crippled Vet in camo jacket and jeans (wheelchair accessory not included). Put him a romantic comedy and he'll be serviceably shallow, but cast him in an actual dramatic role and you're likely going to wind up with something on the order of his Little Lost Boy take on the mid-life crisis in Eyes Wide Shut.

When I learned that Cruise's production company had bought the rights to Spanish director Alejandro Amen�bar's outstanding science fiction thriller Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), my reaction was one of dismay. The protagonist of Amen�bar's film is a pitifully self-involved, narcissistic twenty-something, a fact crucial to the denouement of the plot. I did not believe Cruise would allow himself to play such an unsympathetic character (few Hollywood stars will), and this caused me to suspect that the remake would involve said protagonist in some sort of heart-warming redemptive transformation, thereby neutering the sinister perversity of the original. When I further learned that the director of the remake, Vanilla Sky, was to be Cameron Crowe, who had heretofore specialized in making romantic comedies and whose previous film, Almost Famous, unforgivably sanitized early 70s rock and roll, transforming that milieu into a kind of summer camp experience, populating it with wise, compassionate groupies and sensitive guitarists who smoked the occasional doobie but never touched the hard stuff . . . well, this pairing of the Vanilla Ice of the acting world with the Vanilla Fudge of directors promised a bland mediocrity of surpassing vanilla-ness.

Hollywood remakes of foreign films rarely succeed in creating even a competent version of their source materials. The 90s were rife with unspeakably bad examples of this artistic malpractice, mostly remakes of French pictures, a surprising percentage of these rendered hors du Hollywood by the presence of either Robin Williams or Martin Short, surely our two most Gallic actors. A few examples? La Femme Nikita, a movie driven by its style and the sensual appeal of Anne Parillaud was morphed into the thoroughly unstylish Point of No Return, featuring the marginally appealing Bridget Fonda. The classic thriller Les Diaboliques, a showcase for the great Simone Signoret, became a forgettable Sharon Stone vehicle Diabolique. The Dutch suspenser The Vanishing, one of the most harrowing films in recent memory, was given a ludicrous happy ending and a Jeff Bridges villain who seemed inspired by heavy dose of Quaaludes. La Chevre, a brisk little comedy, devolved into Pure Luck, one of Martin Short's many undistinguished flops. La Cage aux Folles lost all its glitzy panache when passed into the hands of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. The elegant period piece, Le Retour du Martin Guerre, was recast with a gray-haired marionette (Richard Gere) and reduced to the soporific Sommersby. The classic romantic comedy Cousin, Cousine was reincarnated as Cousins, starring the immortal Ted Danson, and the sterling British mini-series, Traffik, was compressed into a civics lecture (Traffic) that played like an ABC After-School Special.

All this said, Vanilla Sky exceeded my expectations by not providing an easy redemptive out to its protagonist, and although it failed to equal Open Your Eyes, it was not without its pleasures. For one, Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line) has shot the film beautifully, infusing every frame with a glowing artificiality that is entirely appropriate to the subject matter. Cameron Diaz turns in a wickedly edgy performance as an obsessed femme fatale that should earn her a shot at more substantial roles in the future, and there are some excellent performances in smaller roles, notably by Noah Taylor and Tilda Swinton. Most significantly, the picture is faithful to the densely plotted, intricately non-linear structure of the original—a number of scenes are reconstructed shot by shot, the dialogue being rendered in almost literal translation.

Cruise plays David Aames, a callow, wealthy Manhattan media prince who, as he puts it, is "living the dream," is up to his dimples in power, and has a penchant for using beautiful women, one of whom, Julia (Diaz), has developed an unhealthy attraction for him. But when his best friend Brian (Jason Lee) brings a date to David's birthday bash, love (or is it only lust elevated to a gothic intensity?) rocks David's world. The date, Sofia (Penelope Cruz, essentially reprising her part in the original movie), is a dancer—she's even prettier than David, much more soulful, and he just has to get next to her. In his pursuit of Sofia, he neglects Julie, who grows increasingly disturbed and finally wreaks a terrible vengeance by driving herself and David off an embankment, killing herself and disfiguring him. For long months thereafter, agonized, ashamed of his horribly scarred face, grieving his lost beauty, David imprisons himself in his home, all while a hostile takeover threatens his publishing empire.

Yet all is not quite as it appears.

As the narrative jumps back and forth, we learn that David is being refreshed as to the details of his life by a psychiatrist (Kurt Russell), who visits him in a prison where he has been incarcerated for murder; he tries to persuade David to confront what he has done. But what exactly has he done? Can we be sure who he has killed? Or that he has killed anyone at all? Is the psychiatrist simply another element of the conspiracy that David claims has been mounted against him? The more we are told about what David thinks has happened, the less certain the truth of his situation becomes. Is he insane? Is he, as he believes himself to be, scarred, or—as the psychiatrist insists—have his scars been healed? Is there an actual conspiracy to drive him mad? Who is the little man who keeps popping up and trying to explain things to him? The answers to these questions comprise the substance of the twisty plot, of the puzzle that David must solve in order to ferret out the real nature and extent of his dilemma.

While Crowe strives to do justice to this dark puzzle at the heart of the story, he seems at times uncertain in his handling of the thriller genre. His cleverly rewritten dialogue, though apt in its evocation of David's shallowness, is too sprightly and slogan-ish by half to articulate the trauma and confusion that come to beset him. Cruise also tries hard, but his often histrionic reading of David is ultimately unconvincing. Spending most of the movie hidden behind a mask (or, as the script calls it, an "aesthetic-regeneration shield"), unable to use his best acting weapon, that trademark boyish charm and jauntiness, he simply does not have the imaginative or physical resources to convey what Eduardo Noriega managed to bring across in the same role in Open Your Eyes—the shell-shocked, spasmodic awakening and Catholic terror of a man who becomes aware of his failings too late to change his fate, who deserves what has befallen him and yet somehow manages to enlist our interest and, to a degree, our sympathy, because we perceive in him our own failings, our own shallowness.

It would be easy to dismiss Vanilla Sky as being a flawed yet sincerely crafted remake of a somewhat less flawed and far more depthy Spanish thriller, a textbook example of what happens to an intelligent, low-budget film when it is elephantized by a Hollywood process that specializes in technical embellishment and glib polish, thereby creating a movie that is more pretentious than artistically successful, one marred by the unsteadiness of its direction and the inadequacy of its leads (Cruz is an attractive but not a skilled actress, and her purported off-screen relationship with Cruise does not translate into any noteworthy chemistry). That much it certainly is. But something else is going on here, for it becomes apparent that Sky was for Cruise his most personal project to date. Early in the film, the superficiality of David's existence, his breezy charm and masculine potency, the perfect dream of his life—this is all painted with such brio, we have an apprehension that it may well be Cruise's movie star life that is being depicted. Later on, when David is deformed and tormented by inner demons, we are given ample reason to believe that this turn of events may reflect Cruise's view of himself. Ever since 1994, when he played Lestat in Interview with a Vampire, he has shown a tendency to take on roles that disguise his good looks in one way or another. In several other of these films—the two Missions Impossible, Eyes Wide Shut—he has also worn masks. Sky seems the summing up of this trend. It might be said that Cruise is merely attempting to stretch as an actor, but this stretch has maintained such a consistent character in its evolution over the past eight years, it's difficult to believe that he is not, for whatever reason, offering us a pathological confession, a wormy vision of the self-doubt and self-loathing that attend celebrity. The suspicion that such is the case lends Sky a profound creepiness that serves to outstrip the Dickian paranoia of Open Your Eyes, achieving its effect not in the way of a good artwork but rather as might a peek into a private psychiatric file, and this makes the experience of watching it a fascinating if not an aesthetically satisfying one.

The convulsed post-modernity of the idea that a celebrity would find a project that speaks to him so deeply as to motivate him to use it as a lens through which he reveals his private demons to the extent that Cruise appears to do—that in itself might be a fit subject for an even more convulsed and post-modern film. The concept of celebrity has come to emblematize our age, and for all its artistic shortcomings, Vanilla Sky stands as an odd memorial to and a relic of the fin de siecle culture that produced it. It speaks to our bizarre absorption with Great Identities who rise from our midst, archetypal schmucks whose public posturing and incessant foibles, drug rehabs, religious conversions, shoplifting busts, marriages, divorces, sexual peccadilloes and et al, come to represent and perhaps to validate the dread muddle and insignificance of our own inglorious existences, providing us with an ersatz connection to the transcendent, the divine—all the divinity, at any rate, that we are capable of embracing. Perhaps Sky marks a passage from one time to another; perhaps Cruise, consciously or unconsciously anticipating an imminent revolution in digital film and an end to the age of celebrity, has attempted to contrive an Ozymandias-like monument to himself that will cast a shadow beyond the end of the studio system and movie stars and the media priesthood who so devoutly report on and prophesy their movements. This being the circumstance, then Sky is undoubtedly a more important film than its original and might be worth your attention, if only as a curiosity. It's not terrible (not by the standard of remakes, anyway), and at the very least you have to give Tom Cruise credit for the overarching purity of his egomania, for turning self-love into something of a fabulist artifact. But if it's a good movie you're interested in, a literate and suspenseful psychological thriller that has passion at the core of its ultraclever construction, then I would advise you to skip the vanilla and check out the richer, more human flavor of Open Your Eyes.