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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001

A familiar face in the mirror

Vanilla Sky

Rating: * * *
Director: Cameron Crowe
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Tom Cruise is one of those actors who's often managed to get by on looks alone -- any acting is strictly bonus. His looks were perfect for the 1980s, the decade in which his star rose: Those angular brows signaling intent over a decidedly opaque gaze; that supernova smile that projected confidence and a calculated veneer of likability. This was the slick, slightly suspect sales-pitch charm of the yuppie, and it made Cruise rich through films like "Top Gun" and "Cocktail."

It's no surprise, then, that his best roles have traded on this aura of superficial charm. Recall his ruthless sex consultant in "Magnolia," or his go-getter sports agent in "Jerry Maguire".

It was director Cameron Crowe who knew how to employ Cruise's persona so well in "Jerry Maguire," so it was a smart move for Cruise to work with him again on their latest, "Vanilla Sky." Crowe was hot off "Almost Famous," one of 2001's most irresistible films, and he had a surefire script to work with, as "Vanilla Sky" is a re-make of the already successful Spanish film "Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes)," which won top prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1997. Intriguingly, "Vanilla Sky" is a film about good looks, about how people can use them, rely on them -- and be deceived by them.

Cruise plays publishing heir David Aames, a New York City yuppie who's fabulously wealthy and irresistible to women. With his killer bachelor pad, his Ferrari, designer clothes and supermodel babe, it's a role that's pure Cruise -- kind of like Bateman in "American Psycho," but without the homicidal impulses. Unfortunately for him, his supermodel sekkusu furendo Julie (Cameron Diaz) has pretty poor impulse control. When she tires of seeing David, her true love, going for other women -- as he does at a party, where he even tries to score his best friend Brian's (Jason Lee) date Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original) -- she takes him for a drive that ends in a suicidal crash.

David is lucky to survive, but his face has been horribly, permanently disfigured. This pretty much spells the end for his chances with Sofia, who he has totally fallen for. But fate holds an unexpected twist, and David manages to get some surgery worthy of Wacko Jacko and wins his girl back after all.

Now this certainly sounds like a Cruise sort of movie, but hold tight: What I've revealed above is only the beginning of what turns out to be a mind-bender of immense proportions, with a couple of scenes that pull the rug out from under you as effectively as "The Matrix" or "Memento."

Or course, if you've seen the original -- and, contrary to what Hollywood may think, the rest of the world can and does watch films that aren't in English -- the thoroughly surprising script doesn't have the same impact second time around. Nor, for that matter, can Cruz act as well in English as she does in her native Spanish -- yet -- though her sex appeal remains consistent.

A more fundamental problem here is the pairing of director with material. Alejandro Amenabar brought an affinity for chilling terror and suspense to "Open Your Eyes," which he's certainly proved again with his recent hit, "The Others" ( starring Cruise's ex, Nicole Kidman; opening here in March.) Crowe, on the other hand, excels at creating warm, well-rounded and highly sympathetic characters, with an ear for believable dialogue and pop-cultural zeitgeist. He comes up totally short here, as neither Cruise nor Cruz come across as characters we care about, despite the warm and fuzzy love shots cut to pop songs.

Crowe is playing to the here-and-now romance, while the tale demands more abstract attention to the line between fantasy and reality, dream and dark desire. Strangely enough, it's Diaz, playing an obsessive driven by deadly passion, who burns with an intensity the others lack.

As a Hollywood flick, "Vanilla Sky" is a rather daring leap into inscrutability and ontological mind games. As to whether it's better than the original, I would say "no," but it's still far more engrossing than anything else hitting the screens for the holiday season. Ultimately, for a film that seeks to play with the notion of how easily we're seduced by beauty, "Vanilla Sky" does exactly that: Guys will pine for Penelope; girls (and some guys) will swoon over Tom. And tickets will be sold.

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