Vanilla Sky – Vancouver Sun

Dream versus reality: Hey, what’s going on in Vanilla Sky?

Director Cameron Crowe offers insight into the intriguing film starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz

New York – There’s a scene at the very beginning of Vanilla Sky when Tom Cruise — in the role of a trendy New York hedonist — leaves his nifty bachelor’s pad one morning and sets off for work in his Ferrari, only to discover there’s something terribly wrong with his world. The normally teaming streets of Manhattan are devoid of traffic and people. He is alone, save for the garish, blinking neon of Times Square. He brings the car to a lurching halt, jumps on to the empty pavement and, in a display of bizarre ecstasy, raises his face to this onslaught of electronic colour.

It’s an arresting opening to a provocative movie — and like everything else in Vanilla Sky, the scene is not quite what it seems to be. It’s the first of many times that moviegoers will be asking: What is going on? But for director Cameron Crowe, the sequence underlines what he considers to be one of the movie’s pervasive themes — “the effects of pop culture on a modern society.”

Cruise’s character — a charismatic publishing executive — is integral to that world, but also becomes its victim. “Pop culture has become so pervasive,” Crowe muses. “What are the pluses and minuses of that?”

Crowe believes that scene in Times Square — with its ceaseless assault of mega-priced advertising — provides his movie with a vital metaphor. “It’s like being buried under an avalanche of pop — so what is real in a world that is constantly so much predigested dreams?” he asks. A further important question is looming for the flawed everyman played by Cruise, and by implication for all filmgoers: “When will you take responsibility for what is real — or do you care?”

But that’s only one strand in Crowe’s puzzle box of a movie — a movie that will spark fierce debate. Vanilla Sky is not only a daunting departure for the amiable writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, but also for superstar Cruise, who has chosen to lob an unexpected grenade into the complacency of those mainstream fans who prefer him in the context of the billion-dollar franchise represented by his Mission: Impossible thrillers.

Vanilla Sky is not mainstream fare, not by a long shot. Indeed, Crowe will tell you that it resists definition — an admission which isn’t that surprising, considering what happens to Cruise in the course of the movie. Among other things, America’s biggest superstar spends some scenes, not necessarily in continuity, in a state of hideous disfigurement; others languishing in a Kafkaesque prison awaiting trial for murder; others wandering around in a rubber mask with an mockingly eerie resemblance to the features of the real Tom Cruise; others suffering terrible nightmares; still others unable to ascertain whether the woman in his arms is Penelope Cruz or Cameron Diaz.

It’s afternoon in a Manhattan hotel suite, and Crowe has been spending the day listening to all sorts of interpretations of Vanilla Sky from journalists. For example, he’s heard his movie described as “a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.” Crowe’s response: “That’s one interpretation, but as a writer so rooted in reality, I have to say I love how people talk, how people are with each other. So that interpretation denies what are my favourite parts of films — for example, when you’re spying on real life.”

Crowe has also been told that Vanilla Sky is about redemption. “It is,” he agrees, “but it’s also about the effects of pop culture …”

In one interview session with a group of journalists, a frustrated questioner pleads with Crowe to give his puzzling new film a “quick” tag: “Is it a sci-fi romance? Is it a fantasy drama?” Crowe doesn’t bite: “Those all sound good to me,” he says cheerfully but unhelpfully. Then, finally, he gives his own assessment: “I keep going back to ‘love story.”‘ He sees Vanilla Sky as “a mind-bending love story.”

Crowe knows this will be a tough movie for Paramount to market. And he’s also bearing the brunt of explaining its intricacies to journalists because of Cruise’s decision to restrict his press encounters and to shun most members of the print media.

Meanwhile Crowe, one of the most pleasant and approachable figures in Hollywood, agrees that Vanilla Sky is awash in riddles and ambiguity. But he also hopes moviegoers will be tantalized by its challenges. “Several avenues are laid out for you to take, and hopefully that’s the fun of the movie.

“What I wanted to do was lay a series of crumbs throughout the script so that you wouldn’t feel cheated or feel the story took any turn that wasn’t built into it. What I do find is that on second viewing some of the crumbs are more obvious. But still, I think it’s good to be surprised by elements of the movie. What always bothers me in movies is when audiences are treated in a glib way.”

Courtesy of the Vancouver Sun – Jamie Portman – December 14, 2001