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Under a dead sky

Vanilla Sky reteams Tom Cruise and director Cameron Crowe, who had a hit with their last partnership on Jerry Maguire. The sense here of a desperate striving for another hit — yet one with a little more intellectual credibility than the usual blockbuster — is almost palpable. Yet, in most ways, it misfires.

Cruise plays a millionaire publisher who inherited his fortune and his empire, so he plays rather fast and loose with it — as he does with his “fuck buddy” (so the term enters the straight lexicon) Cameron Diaz. His carelessness with her feelings leads to disaster, and then the plot of Vanilla Sky goes into overdrive. It folds in on itself again and again; Cruise is left not knowing what is dream and what is reality. Did he murder someone? Or is he being set up by the board members of his company, who want him out? Or is something else entirely going on? Has he been horribly mutilated in an accident or hasn’t he?

Moments of this switchbacking plot are pretty powerful (Cruise’s bedmate, for instance, mutating before his very eyes in mid-fuck), but somehow it doesn’t add up. That’s partly because of the movie’s very plottiness: there are so many twists that the viewer tends to get lost, and instead of trying to work it out, which would keep one cerebrally engaged, one just sits back and waits for the next surprise. Also, the audience is in the same boat as Cruise: we don’t know what is dream and what is reality either, so we stop caring. Why care about a character’s bad dream? It’s like the season of Dallas that began with one character waking up and realising the whole previous season had been a dream. You think: jeez, you put us through all that and it wasn’t even real.

The other reason Vanilla Sky doesn’t work is the acting. Diaz is appealing and Penélope Cruz, as the other love interest, is good at looking winsome, and Jason Lee, as Cruise’s best friend, is clearly a good actor with not much to do. But Cruise’s range is so limited that we just can’t be made to care about him. And the fact that the character is scripted in such a join-the-dots way doesn’t help. At the start, he’s a spoilt brat with intimacy issues; what he has going for him is a personal fortune, a nice apartment, a tight torso and a wide grin. It’s just not enough.

In fact, Cruise’s character is so fundamentally unlikeable (not to mention uninteresting) that one has a moment of reading his personal tragedy as deserved comeuppance. Are we meant to think that? And, if so, when are we supposed to start feeling sorry for him? Cruise grins so much in the first act of the movie that you just can’t wait for that grin to be wiped off his face.

Cruise has proved that he can be a compelling actor. Not in the Mission Impossible movies, in which he is really a blank (James Bond without the dry British wit), but he did well in Magnolia. There, he played an entirely loathsome character and it worked a treat. Either Cruise is in real life a nice guy who needs to be stretched a bit in the acting department to do good work, or he really is loathsome and the Magnolia role was successful typecasting. Either way, he simply isn’t a sufficiently deep or complex actor to hold Vanilla Sky together. Even the much-vaunted chemistry between him and Cruz, with whom he started an affair on the set of the movie, fails to add a shimmer to the screen. Bogart and Bacall it ain’t.

Vanilla Sky is one of those films that diminish in retrospect. You can give it the benefit of the doubt while watching, expecting a climax that will add it up and redeem it, but it all seems to vanish in a puff of air. On the other hand, the notion of a horribly mutilated Tom Cruise is rather piquant.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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