Director Cameron Crowe has given us some brilliant, inspiring pictures like Say Anything and Almost Famous. So how in the world did he create a film as nihilistic and contrived as Vanilla Sky? The celebrated former Rolling Stone magazine writer is obviously aiming to spread his wings, but sub-par performances and uncharacteristically poor storytelling add up to what is undoubtedly the worst film of Crowe's career.
A remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, the film begins in a similar vein to the earlier Tom Cruise/Crowe collaboration, Jerry Maguire, with the-man-who-has-it-all thrown into a situation where-it-all-comes-crashing-down.
Cruise is David Aames, publisher of a family of Maxim-like magazines and one of Manhattan's most eligible bachelors. He has casual sex with Julie (Cameron Diaz), among other women, though once he lays eyes on Sofia (Penelope Cruz), he knows that he must, must have her. His relationship with the two women leads down a road that twists and turns across genres.
A clutch of recent Hollywood films - The Usual Suspects, Memento and Mulholland Drive - have been much more successful in pulling off the "twisty-mind-bender" thriller. Vanilla Sky plays like a pale imitation. Crowe even steals the blond-woman/brunette-woman dynamic from Hitchcock (by way of David Lynch).
There are too many plot twists that are too incredible and, once all the swerves are added up, that don't matter.
The first part of the film seems to truly be about something (a commentary on the materialism associated with 21st century pop culture) but later events in the story effectively abandon the themes of its first act when the Jerry Maguire motif morphs into The Matrix on a shoestring.
What is most frustrating about Vanilla Sky is the shockingly lazy storytelling by the usually sharp Crowe. Most of the plot's internal logic makes sense upon post-viewing examination, but the details are explained so shoddily that audiences will still be processing one twist by the time the next one happens - which goes even further towards rendering the early themes of the film meaningless by the end. The running time is 140 minutes, but it feels even longer.
The performances are also surprisingly weak. The role of David brings out the worst in Tom Cruise's persona, from his weak emoting, to his makes-you-wanna-punch-him smirk.
Diaz's character is nothing more than a misogynistic caricature, and Penelope Cruz shows again that she is the most irritating, unwatchable actor currently working in movies. Whether its her ridiculously overrated looks or her inability to speak comprehensible English, Cruz has brought ruin to every film in which she's appeared, and Vanilla Sky is no exception. Even more unfortunately, Crowe tries to establish her as an angel on Earth (as he did with Kate Hudson in Almost Famous) but in that role Cruz isn't convincing for a second.
Cameron Crowe is on the cusp of being a great director, but great directors don't need to back their aesthetic touches with explanations - nor do they make films as bad as Vanilla Sky.