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[whitespace] 'Vanilla Sky'
Muss-See Movie: Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz let the loose ends fly in 'Vanilla Sky.'

Not an Eye Opener

'Vanilla Sky' stirs up the subconscious

By Richard von Busack

IN A KEY SCENE in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), a Jewish doctor gives Jack Lemmon a lecture on the importance of being a "mensch"--Yiddish for "human being." Director Cameron Crowe has assimilated Wilder's worst habit: his tendency to shake the finger. When Tom Cruise and Crowe work together, this tendency is amplified. Cruise's act--often, it's not really acting--is about a slick boy getting humility, having his cockiness tamed, from The Color of Money to Crowe's Jerry Maguire to their current collaboration, Vanilla Sky.

At this point, we've seen the gamut of Cruise: the head, tilting under the weight of so much cuteness; the flash of the wolfish incisors. It's getting old, and Cruise knows enough to send the gestures up a little. His David Aames studies the mirror for signs of age, makes a joke about not being gay. These defenses can't overcome the film's essential predictability. Aames is a prince of Manhattan, the heir to an enormous magazine fortune. He has his pick of women and is getting along well with his current sleepover friend, Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz).

At a birthday party, Ames makes a play for Sofia (Penélope Cruz, who was in the indifferent 1997 Spanish original, Open Your Eyes). Julie is infuriated with jealousy and, during a drive to talk things over with David, hurls her car off a Manhattan overpass, killing herself and disfiguring David's face. From this point, on the story becomes more curious. Aames is being interrogated by a fatherly psychiatrist (Kurt Russell); the young man is in prison, guilty of some sort of capital crime. In flashbacks, the romance with Sofia continues, taking a turn into surrealism and science fiction.

Crowe and his wife, Nancy Wilson (of the rock band Heart), assembled one very distracting rock score. Vanilla Sky is as much a mix tape as a movie. Evocative tunes such as Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" and "The Porpoise Song" by the Monkees break the frame of the film. As in Crowe's Almost Famous, one ends up thinking so much about the emotional associations of the music that the images on the screen seem irrelevant. These careful soundtracks don't help the matter of Crowe's shaky ability to create mood. Compare Vanilla Sky with similar inquiries into the difference between the romantic ideal and the real in Buñuel, Hitchcock and Lynch, and this picture's moralizing and thinness seem pronounced.

Vanilla Sky doesn't even work as a thriller. Crowe, famous as a mensch, isn't ruthless enough to twist the audience effectively. Everything he touches turns to butter. As the simmering madwoman, Diaz is the film's highlight, though Crowe is too tame to eroticize a scene where she gets tied up (and Diaz seems willing to go there, too). Despite impressive work by Noah Taylor and Tilda Swinton late in the film, nothing can obscure the now-ancient arc reappearing under even the often-unfamiliar circumstances. Vanilla Sky may be futuristic and psychedelic, but it adds up to the same old story: Tom Cruise gets mensched again.

Vanilla Sky (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Cameron Crowe, photographed by John Toll and starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz and Kurt Russell, plays at selected theaters countywide.

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From the December 26, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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