Cruise Control

'Vanilla Sky' proves again that Tom Cruise has more than one flavor.

As Vanilla Sky opens, Tom Cruise wakes up, plucks out a gray hair, shows off his fabulous torso, hops in his $80,000 sports car and attempts to assert his heterosexuality. Sure, you're thinking, this is just another average day for Cruise, but wait ... could it all be a dream?

Yep, it's a dream. Then Cruise (playing young publishing giant David Aames) repeats the scene, only now he's awake ... or is he?

While the whole "is this a dream?" motif has been done to death on prime-time soap operas and in the 2000 presidential election, Vanilla Sky has a strange enough series of twists to rescue itself from the trite possibilities of its O. Henry-esque elements.

In fact, Vanilla Sky may be one of the weirdest mainstream movies ever made, which is all the more astonishing in light of the fact that it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

Crowe is easily one of the most competent filmmakers around, but he's also one of the most conservative. His stories are like his soundtracks: middle of the road rock-and-roll hits that we can all relate to. He thinks he's being edgy when he includes a U2 song, so I don't expect much experimentation in his work.

Vanilla Sky, though, is a departure. Instead of his normal approach of writing semi-autobiographical screenplays that extol his heroic love of family values, he adapted this script from the Spanish film Abre los Ojos. The director of that film, Alejandro Amenabar, was originally asked to direct the American version, but he decided that he'd rather pollute our theaters with the incredibly crappy "thriller" The Others. Thus, he and Crowe split up Hollywood's favorite sexually ambiguous power couple, and Crowe was given free rein to rewrite the script.

The final product is, like Cruise himself, just short of fabulous (Cruise claims to be 5-foot-7, but I doubt it.)

Under the titular vanilla sky, David Aames rules a vast publishing empire. He's as handsome as Tom Cruise, and has just as much luck convincing beautiful women that he's a heterosexual. Unfortunately, he's convinced one woman too many of that.

It seems that one of his "love-making buddies" (he uses a slightly different term), an actress named Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), has fallen in love with him. That's all well and good, but Aames wants to make time with a cutie named Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz), so he steals Sofia away from his best friend (Jason Lee) and heads off to her apartment.

This establishes Aames as a likeable dickwad, the kind of guy who'll stab you in the back but, gosh darn it, with that crooked Tom Cruise smile, you've just got to forgive him.

Unless you're Julie Gianni, that is. She follows him to Sofia's apartment, and then lures him into her car the next morning. He thinks they're going for a bit of what the English call "snogging," but in fact Julie's plan is to drive her car off a bridge and kill both of them.

She gets it half right, and then things get weird. With Julie dead and Aames' once beautifully Tom Cruise-like face ruined, his fairy-tale existence becomes a bit too real. Only, is it real at all? Characters start to turn into each other, events repeat, and a general dream logic takes over.

Still, it's clear this isn't just a dream, and the mystery of what's going on becomes more and more compelling as it gets more and more difficult to fathom. There are dozens of tiny clues scattered across the beautiful, super-saturated shots, but it doesn't really come together until the end. Don't worry: This is an American film, so someone will explain everything in minute detail.

While long exposition usually ruins a film for me, here it works because the tension of not knowing what's going on has reached a boiling point. It's like that final scene in the mystery movie where the detective assembles all the suspects in one room and reveals the killer: We allow it because, by that time, we really want to know.

Vanilla Sky isn't perfect; Cruise is actually surprisingly good when he's not wearing facial prosthesis, but when his beauty is hidden he has a tendency to act like, well, like he used to act before he became a halfway decent actor. Kurt Russell is miscast as a caring psychologist; he's really better as a silent killer. And the story, like all of Crowe's work, is about punishing people who experiment with their lives or in any way depart from fairly traditional values.

But I think Vanilla Sky is a winner, in that same class of film as The Swimmer or David Mamet's Homicide. It's a mystery of a different sort, and if you're willing to tolerate not knowing what's going on for an hour or so, then I think you'll find Vanilla Sky immensely rewarding. If you prefer your mysteries to give everything away in the first 30 minutes, then by all means skip this one and go watch The Others or The Matrix or Davey And Goliath Wonder About God.

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