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Vanilla Sky

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
Vanilla Sky
from Film Forum, 12/21/01

Crowe is introducing his colorful and intense remake of a Spanish thriller called Open Your Eyes. Like the original, which was directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro AmenÁbar, Vanilla Sky is mind-bending, and it demands your close attention."

Here's the setup: David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a super-rich heir to a splashy vanity magazine empire. David squanders his money. He buys art to show off, without comprehending the art's meaning or beauty. Similarly, he harasses and abuses friends and lovers, scarring the women that flock to him like moths to a flame.

Julie (Cameron Diaz in her best performance yet) is one of those moths. She says she's content to be David's "friend" and willing sex toy. But when David flirts with a seductive brunette named Sophia (Penelope Cruz), Julie gets possessive and starts demanding that David honor his unspoken commitments. "When you sleep with someone," she rages, "your body makes a promise whether you do or not." But insights like that just bounce off David. He's determined to control his kingdom of denial, until the wages of his sins finally overtake him.

Vanilla Sky is a long, complex, ambitious thriller that doesn't quite work. Plot twists and puzzling contradictions stack up until the audience is struggling to comprehend what is going on. That may prevent the film's important moral lessons from sinking in. Still, it's exciting to see Crowe (Singles, Say Anything) pushing himself to do something new.

Some mainstream critics were impressed with the film's moral courage. At the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert writes, "Think it all the way through, and Vanilla Sky is a scrupulously moral picture. It tells the story of a man who has just about everything, thinks he can have it all … and loses it because—well, maybe because he has a conscience."

Likewise, Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) writes, "Crowe … digs for the moral context that has turned David's world into a nightmare. Crowe's tantalizing film sticks with you."

Stephen Holden (The New York Times) calls it "a disorganized and abstract if still-intriguing meditation on parallel themes. One is the quest for eternal life and eternal youth; another is guilt and the ungovernable power of the unconscious mind to undermine science's utopian discoveries. David's redemption ultimately consists of his coming to grips with his own mortality."

Religious media critics were sorely divided over the film. Family-friendly critic Holly McClure (The Orange County Register) raves, "This is a movie with a sobering message that may be an uncomfortable journey for the audience, but is still a profound one most can appreciate."

"All the components of the film are … admirable," says Michael Elliott (Christian Critic). "From a spiritual perspective, the lesson is clear. Every action has a consequence. As one of the characters says, 'Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.'" But he does register a complaint: "Because nothing much makes sense until the final few minutes, the first journey through Vanilla Sky is less than satisfying."

Some religious media critics condemn the film for portraying the ugliness of sin. John Adair (Preview) writes, "Frequent foul language and graphic sexual elements cloud up Vanilla Sky."

Steven Issac (Focus on the Family) agrees: "Tight directing and clever twists make Vanilla Sky a colorful, surreal experience. What turns it black as night is a firmament full of obscenities, sexualized violence and murder, and glamorized alcohol abuse."

To tell its story of a sinful, indulgent man and the long road to maturity, Vanilla Sky does paint some harsh pictures. Sins, portrayed honestly, should look somewhat appealing. After all, they are, and that's why people sin. But this requires that the consequences be portrayed honestly, and in Vanilla Sky they definitely are. When David realizes his sins, he first reacts by drowning his woes in drink and collapses, miserable, on a sidewalk. Is that "glamorized alcohol abuse"?

Taking a different approach, J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is frustrated by the film on an artistic level. "There are a number of provocative elements in Vanilla Sky: Is it possible to change your life? What is the relationship of fantasy and reality? How important is your image to your self-image? Unfortunately, those are only fitfully explored. … Cameron Crowe was not a good choice to direct the project."

The U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops critics agree: "Crowe's film is initially intriguing before becoming increasingly incomprehensible as the elaborate narrative plays games with reality and illusion, cryogenics and character identities."

While I found it difficult to follow, awkwardly paced, and a little preachy in places, the film's tough questions echo in my memory several days later. Do I find my security in temporal, fragile things of this world? Do I use God's gifts to make myself comfortable and appease my own ego? Do I blind myself to the harsh realities of life so I can avoid responsibility?