Poor Little Rich Boys: Revisiting Vanilla Sky

(This pseudo-review contains spoilers for Vanilla Sky, so uh…watch out, man.)

For the longest time, I thought I might be the only one outside of Cameron Crowe who actually owns this movie on DVD, but then I found out our own Gougagna does as well, so there are at least three copies floating around out there. But I suspect Gougagna and Cameron and I are probably outliers. This film wasn’t a phenomenon at the time of its release, but it was kind of A Big Deal. It opened at #1 at the box office on its debut on December 14, 2001, and it finished with $100 million domestic and another $100 million overseas. Yet it’s a movie we don’t talk about much today. Ebert and Roeper both liked it, but according to Rotten Tomatoes, about 55% of critics didn’t, and I think that’s because it’s a movie that frustrated a lot of people.

Which I don’t mean in some kind of condescending Rick and Morty-fan way. “Oh, you didn’t get it? Well, it does a highly developed critical superbrain like mine to truly appreciate a film that has Kurt Russell and Jason Lee in supporting roles!” But I think it’s frustrating in that it’s a highly idiosyncratic and seemingly personal movie. There are, allegedly, actual childhood photos of Tom Cruise integrated into the film to stand in for his character’s childhood. Penelope Cruz asks Cruise if he’d rather listen to Vicki Carr or Jeff Buckley, and we the audience are supposed to understand that this, at least in miniature, is what makes him love her. Music cues include Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” and Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends?”, which are neither obvious choices, nor necessarily popular choices, but they’re just two of many pop culture references that are taken as read—of course you associate the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan with a cool image of love, of course you associate Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird with fatherly affection. Even the very title: Monet’s “vanilla skies” are mentioned in the movie, but the image contains meaning only insofar as the movie defines it. And why did they use “vanilla sky” instead of any number of other images that could have stood in for the same thing? Well, Crowe seemed to feel something personal about that image (it was apparently also a possible title for Almost Famous) and based the whole movie around it.


But when we think of “personal” films, we usually think of small films by outsiders and iconoclasts: moral victories against the big dumb studios that hate to take a chance on anything cool or surprising. But make no mistake, Vanilla Sky is A Big Movie. It’s got Tom Cruise—the very definition of “modern movie star,” particularly at the time; it’s got Cameron Crowe coming off of the financial success of Jerry Maguire and the critical success of Almost Famous; it’s got a title track by no less a personage than James Paul McCartney. And who’s that making a cameo in the birthday party scene? Oh, no biggie, just Steven Spielberg—he’s here as a favor to his wealthy and successful pal Tom!

This isn’t a movie by filmmakers laboring against impossible odds on a shoestring budget to finish a passion project only to release it to a world that might never find it; Vanilla Sky had lots of money and lots of resources and star power behind it. I have never seen Abre Los Ojos, the original film that this is a remake of, but everyone says it’s better. Maybe it is, or maybe that’s received wisdom—doesn’t it seem like the small, foreign version should be the cooler version? Wouldn’t it be unfair if having a big enough budget to shut down Times Square for a dream sequence really could buy you a better movie?

Times Square.jpg

Yet, that doesn’t make it any less of passion project, does it? Crowe and Cruise took the structure of Abre Los Ojos and poured themselves all over it and into its crevices. The tricky thing is here, when marquee filmmakers and actors do stuff like this, we tend not to praise them for putting a piece of themselves on the screen; instead we call them to the carpet as self-indulgent. Here is a movie where Tom Cruise plays—well, hell, let’s just let the synopsis on the back of the DVD describe his character: “Young, handsome and wealthy, publishing tycoon David Aames (Cruise) can have anything his heart desires. Still, David’s charmed life seems incomplete.” I mean, on the one hand: boo, and indeed, hoo, right? Much of Vanilla Sky can be dismissed as a “poor little rich boy” story: “Ha ha, living in a fabulous Manhattan penthouse and having casual sex with Cameron Diaz is not all it’s cracked up to be!”

Still, for as much as we like to say “Money doesn’t buy happiness,” when we hear of a miserable rich person, we sometimes feel a certain resentment, as though they have no business feeling unloved or unfulfilled; money should at least buy a respite from unhappiness, right? After the movie’s first big turning point, Cruise’s character is disfigured, and that might stoke resentment as well: “Oh no, what if Tom Cruise’s perfect face were ruined? Does he think disfigurement cosplay will impress us into thinking he’s brave and understanding?”


But all of those hurdles to accepting this movie are what makes Vanilla Sky so interesting to me. It’s full of these kinds of frictions. Like that ending! You get the sense that Crowe wanted to make a movie you could watch stoned with your friends and debate “what really happened” after it’s over—but he also must not have wanted to confuse or alienate the audience. And so the ending lays out, in excruciating expositional detail, what really did actually happen such that any personal theory you bring to the table has to compete with it. So we get this science fiction ending that’s not really satisfying because it never feels like they’re invested in it: the first hour-and-forty-five minutes of the movie is an intriguing puzzle with ambiguities that deepen the themes, and the last half hour is just an upside-down box spelling out the answers and letting Tom Cruise come to a somewhat unearned but narratively tidy realization that real life is better than fantasy. (Imagine that at the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray meets an individual revealed to be the one who cursed him to relive the day over and over, and this individual then explains at length the mechanism by which the repetition occurs and what it says about Murray’s character.)

Perhaps Paramount felt uninvested in the puzzle aspect as well, because the trailers for this thing painted it as a pretty straightforward sexy thriller: Sexy Tom Cruise, caught between Sexy True Love Penelope Cruz and Sexy Obsessed Stalker Cameron Diaz. That’s not my usual cup of tea; honestly, the reason I saw this movie in the first place (apart from the really cool Chemical Brothers song in the trailer they played at the movie theater where I worked) was because it had Jason Lee in it, which was a major selling point for me in my Kevin Smith-obsessed youth (and he is absolutely great in this, you guys).


But what I ended up loving about it, and the reason I ended up buying it on DVD, is that it is a movie pitched toward overly sensitive, “in love with love” romantic pop culture nerds, which of course I was at the time. Cameron Crowe is, famously, a romantic pop culture nerd too, and he gives himself—and you—an avatar in the form of Tom Cruise. He likes Radiohead and French New Wave cinema just like us! Plus he is rich and handsome! And through this idealized proxy, you get to woo Penelope Cruz as Sophia, very deliberately engineered in Crowe’s lab to make romantic pop culture nerds fall in love with her. She’s cool, she’s funny, she’s kind, she has good taste in music and overcoats, and, that’s right, she looks like Penelope Cruz. She’s what would later be called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by some guy on some website I can’t remember—although in this case it’s sort of undercut because she spends about half the movie as a very literal “dream girl.” And though the ending feels a little unearned, it at least shows some self-awareness: the protagonist is a romantic pop culture nerd who gets the opportunity to fully immerse himself in his fantasies, and those fantasies eventually sour and literally imprison him.


So it speaks to you or it doesn’t, but I don’t think you should opt out just because it’s made by rich and successful people, and I don’t think you should opt out just because it kind of sucks as a science fiction movie. Because it’s not a science fiction movie, and it’s not interested in being a science fiction movie other than as a somewhat regrettable means to a tidy explanation. It’s not even, really, a movie about True Love. Because, as both Jason Lee’s and Noah Taylor’s characters point out, David barely even knew Sophia in his real life, and yet she became the driving force behind his recovery and later the centerpiece of his virtual reality happy ending after one night together. That may not be True Love, but it is, as Tech Support suggests, the story of “when true love seemed possible.” And I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that better captures that feeling of potential (realistic or not) the way Vanilla Sky does.