The great events of the world take place in the brain,” wrote Oscar Wilde in the magnificent Dorian Gray. Consistent with the bile Hollywood screenwriters and actors have been churning out for over a decade now, no impressive—let alone great—events or revelations take place in the minds of the protagonists of the film “Vanilla Sky,” now in theaters. To make an exercise in solipsism attractive, the minds involved must be somewhat interesting. Throw together a bunch of pedestrian heads, barely extant dialogue, and an ad hoc, make-it-up-as-you-go disjointed plot—and you end up with a poor outcome.
Please read on. I won’t be divulging the plot or climax of the film, mainly because, although I saw it, I haven’t the foggiest what this film is about.
Because the Hollywood landscape has been bleak for so very long, this bit of banality should not, in all fairness, be the focus of any extra spleen or derision. “Vanilla Sky” generally jibes with the staple Hollywood fare. If it’s not a special-effects orgy, it’s a showcase of the toothy, loud and gregarious Julia Roberts-prototype Hollywood babe and her assorted male cohorts in a succession of vapid “romantic comedies,” sometimes with real men, sometimes with extra-stratospheric beings.
Critics debate with absolute seriousness whether the broom-straddling Harry Potter is an admirable or evil little tyke. Who cares? Why no mention of the disturbing specter of adults en masse flocking to view what is a film for kids? If there is such a thing as mass neurosis, then this is it. The following will no doubt carbon date me, but a “period piece” (joke alert) like the “Ninja Turtles” was a matinee to which I took my then young child and her friends. It was not a cultural event.
“The Lord of the Rings” was once considered a children’s book. It appealed to adults with a proclivity for hobgoblins and gobbledygook. Never would I have predicted that grown-ups would levitate so far above their rational minds as to find this flight from reality worthy of such gush. At some stage it would seem developmentally appropriate for adults to cease craving a steady entertainment diet of fantasy, and develop an interest in real people, in relationships and in how flesh-and-blood make their way—and interact—in a complex world. What has happened to such narratives, to the depiction on celluloid of developed—as opposed to flat—characters? What ever happened to the art of acting? What ever has turned Americans into a stun-gunned audience, with the attention span of a nit, and an ability to focus only on fast-moving and imploding animated objects, or on relationships that are entirely abstracted from reality?
Fact has lately outdone fiction. The need for some escapism can be understood in light of recent events. But the American audience has for some time demonstrated the aesthetic and sensibility of a magpie searching a trash heap for a shiny object.
Into this twilight tradition steps the film “Vanilla Sky.” Remember the collision between William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in that contemporary film noir “Body Heat”? They sizzled. Well, together and apart, Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz have the magnetism of a wet blanket. A one-watt light bulb generates more heat than this dull duo exudes.
The epitome of shallow chic, Cruise plays David Aames who is a rich and flighty playboy at the helm of a Dad Did It company. Sophia (Penelope Cruz) breezes into his birthday party as the date of his best friend, Brian (Jason Lee). With his mistress (Cameron Diaz as Julie) watching on, Cruise becomes captivated by Sophia. I hate to puncture this moment of magic with some un-PC elitism, but when, in response to Tom’s request for an introduction, Penelope informs him he has “de plejerrr of Sophia,” I somehow heard Penelope shrieking, “can you buy my fish?” Her shrill voice and tortured syntax lend Penelope the quality of a fishwife.
Penelope’s smug rat-like grin accompanies the staple behavior that is taught at the Meryl Creep School of Acting – if you wanna appear deep and esoteric, act goofy and erratic. Sophia/Penelope makes facetious little quips that are anything but witty. It is profoundly rude to accost your host right off the bat with the accusation that his empire is not his own, but the doing of daddy. Who is this ill-bred socialist to crash a party and question the manner in which her host has acquired his fortune? How very tacky indeed.
When a couple has very little mental momentum with which to ignite the physical, it is a good strategy to delay the physical. Tom knows this, and postpones bedding the broad. My hackles stood on end when Penelope, in what was supposed to be a playful tease, bellows after Tom, “plejerrr deleyerrr” (should be “pleasure delayer”).
Cameron Diaz injects some short-lived life into the film as Julie Gianni, the jilted mistress, whose actions catapult Tom into some parallel universe. Viewers have doubtless seen the forthcoming attraction scene where Diaz drives Tom over the bridge. Admittedly, Diaz is the bad guy, but the words she utters were to me at least very sensible: “When you make love to someone, your body makes a promise to him/her,” she insists. Why are you disregarding the emotional consequences that ought to flow from our sleeping together, she conveys to the grimacing Tom, as she careens towards oblivion. The cutis-deep Hollywood perspective, as conveyed in the film, however, is at odds with Diaz’s contention that sleeping with someone should not be regarded lightly. Tom’s puzzled stare conveys a sense of, “hey chick, haven’t you heard of a one-night stand?” But no, Diaz seems to insist that lovemaking as they had shared must mean something and ought to have been followed with a measure of decorum and care.
Her reprehensible and irrational action aside, Diaz makes a good point. At the very least, having made passionate love to the poor girl, Cruise has no business leaving her off his birthday-party guest list or treating her so shabbily.
More evidence of the skin-deep nature of this film: Cruz and Cruise cook it up so long as they are both “good looking” . No sooner does Cruise lose his good looks than Penelope beats a hasty retreat. Tom’s acting, admittedly, is much improved after the accident, when he emerges as a cross between Quasimodo and Elephant Man. On second thought, better to rent David Lynch’s Elephant Man, staring Anthony Hopkins in his pre-Hollywood days and the outstanding John Hurt.
I mentioned William Hurt earlier. Rather than drift in and out of the “Vanilla Sky” artless maze, try “Gorky Park” on video or DVD. It’s a gem of a film with great performances from Hurt and Joanna Pacula. Hurt combines languid and lethal as a Russian detective solving gruesome murders. The film, however, transcends the spy genre thanks to the achingly beautiful performance delivered by Joanna Pacula as Irina. Against the backdrop of Moscow during the communist 1970s, the exquisite Pacula’s yearning for freedom is palpable. For Irina, there is neither life nor love absent liberty. What would Tom and Penelope know about hitting the viewer in the solar plexus?
©2002 By Ilana Mercer