Watching Tom Cruise on television makes me nervous. I think it’s because he tries so extra hard to be charming and clever, to be Tom Cruise-like: he’s got to always come correct. And I can only imagine that this is stressful, given all that’s expected of Maverick. In interviews, he always seems like he’s on the verge of testy, working to flash that big smile, laugh that big laugh, and not answer that big question. There are plenty of celebrities for whom such silliness comes naturally, but for Tom Cruise, it really looks like a job, like it costs him, emotionally at least, to be Tom Cruise.
And it’s no wonder. Imagine what it must be like to have Rosie O’Donnell pledge her undying devotion to you on daytime TV, then announce that she dislikes Cameron Diaz because she was mean to you in your new movie, Vanilla Sky. Or to have Jay Leno dub you a “professional guy,” then ask you to detail the “challenge” of doing love scenes with Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz; or Larry King ask you again and again and again about the passion in the air when you Penelope Cruz did that scene in Vanilla Sky, the scene where you gaze at one another like two superstars in love. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell him that the love affair started after the picture wrapped, and that indeed you were going through very difficult times right about then, what with the divorce and custody disagreements and the gay porn star claiming to have proof of your gayness.
In fact, it doesn’t matter what you say to anyone anymore, because you are Tom Cruise and people have ideas about you.
I’m less inclined to be nervous while watching Tom Cruise in movies. In these rehearsed situations, he appears to be quite capable. He’s a pretty, and pretty cut, action hero (Top Gun and Mission Impossible); a pleasant, if not entirely convincing, romantic lead (Jerry Maguire); and on one occasion, as least, he gives completely remarkable performance, as Vietnam vet and anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. In each of these roles, Tom Cruise shows himself to be a first-rate “professional guy,” evoking sympathy and even a sense of identification, rather than straight-up envy. You can imagine that, if you had the great good fortune to be born with his bone structure, that you might even be able to play those parts. Tom Cruise’s gift is who he is. Or who he looks like he is, which, for all you know, is the same thing.
Perhaps Cruise’s most attractive quality is the apparent care that he’s taken with this gift. Whatever intricacies he’s lived off screen (concerning first wife Mimi Rogers, second wife Nicole Kidman, new co-habitator Penelope Cruz, or gee whiz, Scientology), he’s mostly been smart (or sometimes defensibly naïve) about choosing movie roles (if you exempt Far and Away, Legend, and Cocktail, though this last probably looked like a safely standard Tom Cruise role on paper). Save for Kovic, he tends to take parts that showcase and sometimes even complicate his gift. This is the case with his current character, David Aames, a wealthy, self-absorbed magazine magnate and “playboy.” This term, which Cruise has been using in TV interviews to describe his role in Vanilla Sky, is perhaps tellingly quaint, slightly out of touch and yet also allusive. For David is not so much a “playboy” like Dean Martin used to play, as he is a gentle mélange of playboyish moments, seducing Julie (Cameron Diaz) and Sofia (Penelope Cruz), playfully dominating his best friend Brian (Jason Lee), assuming power in the boardroom where his father’s employees look at him as an immature usurper.
These scenes with the board — all scowling and crusty — are the only ones where David seems remotely obnoxious, but you also tend to applaud his insolence because the board members, whom he calls “the seven dwarves,” appear to be old and mean. David’s youthful good looks — even at 39, Cruise looks youthful, with shaggy hair and a seriously worked-out body — apparently stand in for actual caddishness. Indeed, his congeniality — so immediately appealing to nice girl Sofia — eclipses David’s apparent arrogance and selfishness. This particular character mix, misguided, injudicious, but never mean-spirited, is a standard one for protagonists in Cameron Crowe’s movies, say, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. They make mistakes, but they learn from them. They are boys becoming guys.
This is a twist on the original version of this character, conceived as a wholly arrogant and willfully ignorant guy, harder to like than a character Tom Cruise would play (even his dick-salesman in Magnolia has his redemptive tears). As you probably already know, Vanilla Sky is a remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). (And in case you haven’t kept up with the melodrama, Amenábar also wrote and directed this summer’s elegant scary movie, The Others, produced by Cruise and his partner Paula Wagner, and starring, of course, the ex-Mrs. Cruise.) Where Amenábar’s Cesar (played by the dazzling Eduardo Noriega), is mesmeric, egotistical, and boldly juvenile, David is more like Jerry Maguire, foolish but righteously motivated, by leftover fear of a overbearing, now dead, super-exec father.
This sort of rationalizing demonstrates how Crowe’s movie adopts a flatfooted logic, making it both more literal and less lyrical than Abre Los Ojos (though the new film occasionally lifts shot set-ups and editing sequences from the original). Where the first movie leaves open questions as to how, why, and even if Cesar is caught up in a bizarre nightmare-scape, Vanilla Sky makes everything make sense, eventually. Shortly after meeting the girl of his dreams, Sofia, David’s own beautiful face is horribly disfigured when his suicidal “fuck-buddy” Julie takes him for a drive and crashes her car, punishing him for his attentions to Sofia (“When you sleep with someone,” Julie insists, “your body makes a promise, whether you do or not!”). From here, the film splinters into several narratives: In one, a kindly psychologist (Kurt Russell) interviews David, in prison awaiting trial for murder. As David struggles to remember what happened, the movie jumps back and forth in time, using black and white and video footage to mark different temporal and spatial registers.
In many of these flashbacks (or are they hallucinations? hmmm), David is gimping along like Igor, his face alternately scarred or covered in a mask that his doctor calls an “aesthetic regenerative shield” a “helpful unit.” David is thinks the doctors are fooling him, but little does he know the wonders that might be wrought by ooky SF remedies, and the transformation awaiting him. Even better, this mask business allows for one of the film’s more surreal and poignant scenes — taken from Amenábar — set in a nightclub, where David finds Sofia with her original date, Brian, still angry, by the way, that David “stole” her from him on that night before the car accident: as he tells Tom, or rather, David, “You will never know the bitter pain of the guy who goes home alone.” Mucky-faced David is mad at the world, and while he wants to win Sofia back, she’s put off by his nasty, self-pitying manner. Watching the two dance and laugh across the crowded room, David can hardly contain himself, and the camera spins around him, the mask on the back of his head to form a concrete image of his two faces, neither quite “real.”
Images of such confusion are Vanilla Sky‘s strongest suit, and it’s considerably less compelling when it starts explaining everything. Easily its most exhilarating sequence is its first (also drawn almost shot for shot from Abre Los Ojos), partly because you don’t know what you’re in for, and partly because it’s a concept beautifully executed. David wakes to an alarm clock with a voice recording, “Open your eyes, open your eyes.” He gets out of bed, gets into his fabulous black Ferrari, and zooms into a completely desolate and not a little frightening Times Square (one point of comparison: Cesar drove a white Beetle). It’s a terrific scene: David realizes the SF-ishness of the moment and panics, abandoning his very nice car and running past the Virgin and JVC stores and the TRL studio, the scenery smashing past and up around him, reeling and rushing. Welcome to the New Normal’s nightmare: you’re all alone in New York City. Who knew how ghastly and on-target this particular nightmare vision would be?
If comprehending — or at least articulating — confusion counts as insight, this Times Square scene, looking for all the world like some kind of huge ideological detonation, comes close to genius. I can’t think of another image that so acutely captures the dread that comes with privilege, the fear that it — the wealth, comfort, and round-the-clock media, the glory of excess and the speed of consumption — will all disappear, that the apocalypse will not be fiery and explosive, but yawning and empty, deserted.
The film never recovers from this blip of brilliance. As David “develops,” as you learn more about him, he becomes less interesting, more mundane. The poor boy is looking for love, just like any other Tom Cruise character, or Cameron Crowe character, for that matter. While this allows for a certain identification for some U.S. viewers who feel that carefully mediated intimacy with Tom Cruise and other images that look like familiar (and certainly, Crowe has put his “personal” stamp on the remake), it also domesticates this rowdy existential terror. Because Julie appears to be pretty straight-up insane, David’s culpability, his unthinking cruelty and privilege, isn’t really an issue. By the time Tilda Swinton, of all people, shows up as a prim cryogenics administrator to explain the mystery, it’s become quite humdrum. David realizes the power of true love rather than taking responsibility for his privilege and understanding his fear. Surely, love is a crucial element, but the power structure is, perhaps too often, where that love is manifested and manipulated.
And the power structure is where Vanilla Sky‘s action would have been. Consider the philosophical and moral argument it starts to make, that “pop culture” (broadly and rather reductively conceived in the film to include Bob Dylan album covers, Beach Boys and Peter Gabriel tunes, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons, and Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird) shapes contemporary lives and selves. Moreover, the film asserts, if you’re not careful in your dealings with people, you’ll end up with no self and no life, in that big empty Times Square in your head. All this is roiling around in Vanilla Sky, but rather than follow through on one of these tough ideas — the messy, costly indistinctions between you and your body making promises, between your intention and your effect — it resorts to the neat coherence of the professional guy making a right choice, its least intriguing possibility.