Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Vanilla Sky


I'm in a state of nervous exhaustion, trying to ready my new kabuki musical spectacular for the stage. Every time I turn around, there's more need to rehearse, a new publicity campaign which needs attention, or the costume and set designers are at each other's throats over who gets to use the last of the watered silk supply. Fortunately, we are all going to take a two week break for the holidays in order to recuperate and restore frayed tempers.

Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, my two lovely young co-stars, have energy to spare. I asked them there secret and they told me it was Special K. I've always had Cheerios for my breakfast, but I'd be willing to change cereal allegiance for a bit more energy. They promised to bring me some and gave me a little packet. It looks more like sugar than any cereal I've seen so I sprinkled it over my Cheerios this morning. I must say that it did do the trick; I tapped my way through six straight hours of rehearsal on Crouching Twinkie, Hidden Ding Dong, the new second act dream ballet. I didn't even mind being suspended from cables while doing the inverted sword tricks where I defeat the spirit of bulimia in an epic fencing sequence.

In fact, I have so much energy, despite a fourteen hour day, I called up Nurse Lynn and insisted on a trip to the local Cineplex for a film. Off we went to share an eggroll or two at the Chinese place and to see Vanilla Sky, the new Tom Cruise film from Cameron Crowe. These two teamed up before to produce the minor romantic comedy classic, Jerry Maguire, so we had high hopes for this one as well.

Vanilla Sky is an American remake of the Spanish film, Abre Los Ojos, written and directed by the Spanish Chilean, Alejandro Amenabar (who also wrote and directed this summer's The Others.) It concerns the fortunes of David Aames (Cruise), a wealthy publishing heir in New York (think Steve Forbes with better teeth) who is shallow, conceited, and charming - the typical Tom Cruise character. He is conducting a purely physical affair with the lovely Julie (Cameron Diaz) when, at his birthday party, he meets Sofia (Penelope Cruz), a young Spanish woman who accompanies his best friend Brian (Jason Lee). David recognizes that Sofia may be the love of his life and they spend a perfect evening together. This makes Julie more than a little jealous and, as revenge, she drives the car she and David are in off a bridge killing herself and maiming David, especially his face.

This is where things get complicated. David recovers from his wounds and returns to his life determined to get back with Sofia. They rebond but it's soon unclear as to whether this is reality or fantasy. When Julie turns back up, David's facial wounds magically heal, and he is interrogated by a psychiatrist (Kurt Russell) for a murder that may not have actually taken place, we may be in an alternate universe, a fever dream, or some sort of science fiction twilight zone. All is eventually, if unconvincingly explained and the non-linear plot ties itself up in a neat bow on top of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper.

A lot of critics have attacked this film mercilessly, calling it an incoherent mess and an unqualified disaster. I would disagree with this assessment. The film's plot is complicated, deliberately confusing as its told from the point of view of David who cannot, for various reasons, determine the true nature of reality, but careful attention to the film reveals that it holds together as a coherent whole. I am a great admirer of Amenabar's (despite not having seen Abre Los Ojos)and he is too careful a writer to have created a hopeless mishmash. I think the problem comes from the difficulties of translating a complicated psychological thriller piece cross culturally. Cameron Crowe, the writer/director working from Amenabar's original film, lifts the movie nearly shot for shot, simply Americanizing the script references and characters. Penelope Cruz even plays the same part in both versions. I think this was a basic mistake. American culture is not Spanish culture and the work should have been re-evaluated and re-thought. Most lifts from good European films simply aren't as good as their source material due to different filmmaking and storytelling traditions. Even importing the same star or director doesn't always help. Compare, for instance George Sluzier's Dutch and American versions of The Vanishing or the French and American versions of The Visitors with Jean Reno. Crowe, however, continues to have a sharp ear for dialog and rhythm and picks the best soundtracks in the business. His wife, Nancy Wilson, formerly of Heart, composed the score.

In addition to a wrong-headed adaptation, the piece is fundamentally miscast. I can see what attracted Cruise to the script. The part of a callow young man who is altered by life is one he's been playing for nearly twenty years. It's the protagonist role, it has some showy scenes and some places to yell and scream, and he gets to take his shirt off occasionally. Unfortunately, the part of David Aames calls for an actor, not for a movie star. There is a very uncomfortable fit between the Cruise persona and the needs of the film and the movie never recovers from it. Cruise's need to dominate the film with all his trademarks keep the film from telling the story it needs to tell and adds to the incoherence. There is also the oddity of having Cruise spend half the film in either major prosthetic make-up (which, strangely enough, makes him look a bit like Cameron Crowe) or a mask. The mask scenes are especially eerie as Cruise usually plays a Tombot with minimal emotion in his eyes and face. When the mask has more expression than the star, you know you're in trouble.

As for Miss Penelope Cruz, I don't suppose it's her fault that she looks and sounds like Daffy Duck. I suppose she could sue her parents for bad genes but it's probably a little late. Anyway, I've never considered Daffy, or even Daisy, to be a perfect dream woman and no member of the audience is going to be convinced Penelope is, at least not when compared with the star wattage of Cruise and Cameron Diaz as her romantic rival. Cruise and Diaz sizzle together. Cruise and Cruz fall flatter than yesterday's soufflé. She's a competent actress, but she's out of her league here, especially her somewhat mangled English line readings. One can't help but be reminded of that great star of the 30s, Anna Sten.

The supporting cast fares better. Jason Lee is his usual charming self. I don't know if he'll ever be able to carry a film but he's always a pleasure in best buddy roles. Kurt Russell, finally playing his age (and looking good), delivers a competent Gregory Peck. The titular vanilla skies, a title that refers to a Monet painting, are lovely and New York is a perfect autumnal dream world. Shots of a deserted Times Square and Central Park full of orange leaves are stunning.

I can't recommend the film, as it just doesn't work, but I do suggest that those with an interest of how film can go wrong take a look. The source material was sound. The creators at the peak of their game. They simply misjudged the star weight the material could bear and put the emphases in the wrong places.

Holographic John Coltrane. Empty Central Park West. Gratuitous Steven Spielberg cameo. Tom Cruise caricature. Nightclub dancing. Tequila shots. Gratuitous Tilda Swinton.  Endless elevator ride. Visual Bob Dylan references.

No comments:

Post a Comment