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The Sky Is Falling

 

Vanilla Sky

Cameron Crowe, USA, 2001

Rating: 3.1

 

 

Posted: December 31, 2001

By Laurence Station

Cameron Crowe has a serious record collection, and he's not afraid to show it off. In such films as 1989's Say Anything, 1992's Singles and, of course, 2000's charmingly autobiographical Almost Famous, rock journalist/screenwriter/filmmaker Crowe has consistently used music to underscore key moments in his films.

With his latest effort, Vanilla Sky, based on Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar's Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), Crowe once again proves he has a definite knack for emphasizing the dramatic highpoint as this reality-bending tale of identity crisis viewed through the skewed lens of darkest fate literally paces itself with each carefully chosen song.

Crowe establishes an eerily effective disconnected/disoriented tone from the outset. Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" drones with the line "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" as silver spoon party boy/publishing magnate David Aames (Tom Cruise, giving two hundred percent, as always) awakens to an empty Manhattan, literally devoid of people, yet still screaming with product placement ads as he careens through a unnervingly abandoned Times Square.

Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" appears several times throughout the film as Aames attempts to figure out what is dream and what is reality after a jaded friend/sex buddy, Julie Gianni (the wonderfully manic Cameron Diaz), drives off a bridge, killing herself, disfiguring David's face, and sending him into a coma.

As we hear Bob Dylan's "Fourth Time Around," Crowe proves he's not content merely with audio reinforcement of the film's ideas, but also intrigued by the notion of pop cultural touchstones, as well. Ames and a woman he's recently met, Sofia Serrano (a delightful Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the Amenabar original), recreate the cover shot of Dylan and, then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walking towards West Fourth Street on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album. Also, at a party for Aames, we don't just hear snatches of John Coltrane's signature sax, we see the man actually playing via a holographic image entertaining the guests.

If Crowe had bad taste in music, such blatant usage of pop-rock songs might have grown tiresome. As it is, the tunes work. The film, however, is another matter.

The basic setup of a Charles Foster Kane-like upstart with a controlling interest in the publishing empire his late father built, constantly at odds with a stodgy board of directors Aames amusingly refers to as the "Seven Dwarves," has promise. But while the film hints at a board-spawned conspiracy behind Aame's accident, this thread never pans out.

If Crowe had emphasized the depth of Julie's obsession and the paranoia of the Seven Dwarves "plotting" against David, the film might have worked far better than it does. As it stands, the explanation for what happens to David after the accident (overcoming the damage to his face and, critically, the shattering of his insufferable confidence) is too pat, too easily shoehorned in. It lacks impact, because the payoff simply isn't justified by the setup. Explaining exactly what the payoff is would spoil the surprise, and will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that it involves an awkward life after death angle that fails to hold up under close scrutiny. Julie's obsession, and the boards' conniving are established as more than red herrings early on, and suffer unnecessarily when tossed casually aside for a far more fantastical revelation at the film's conclusion.

The movie toys with the audience's perception of reality, but unlike the effective "gotcha" ending of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, the shock of what's really going on simply doesn't add up to what has come before. The desire to have a shock ending, when such a conclusion is not consistent with the internal logic it's based upon, simply doesn't work. If Ames is being punished for his vanity, then the ending is completely unnecessary. Likewise, if the entire exercise was merely a head trip into what is real and what is not, fine. But if that's the case, the entire plot could have been considerably more streamlined.

Technically, Vanilla Sky is bedrock solid. Cinematographer John Toll's (who earned back-to-back Academy Awards for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart) New York locations are marvelously rendered, while Crowe's dialogue is smart, if occasionally hokey (especially some of the pearls of faux-wisdom Cruz's Sofia is forced to utter -- reincarnation as cats, and so forth). And the music, as we've already discussed, is top-notch throughout.

Like the Vanilla Sky in a Monet painting (to which the film pays tribute), Crowe's impressionistic rendering of Amenabar's creation is an intriguing but ultimately murky experiment in audience participation (here are the pieces of the puzzle, now figure out what the hell's going on) versus audience manipulation (this is what's really going on, your thinking caps are no longer required). The film, while interesting to look at, ultimately crumbles under the weight of its needlessly top heavy canvas.

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 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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