One way to take a lot of liberties with a story is to make it science fiction. And if the view of the future is far enough away from present day reality, then the writer can springboard himself to far flights of fancy. But the farther out you go away from the safety of reality the more risk there is of confusing an audience.
In "Vanilla Sky", a reworking of Alejandro Amenabar's film, "Abre Los Ojos" (Open Your Eyes), Cameron Crowe, the writer-director of "Almost Famous", abandons clarity for the purposely deceiving, confusing and suggestive. Perhaps he does this out of a feeling of "importance" but stark flashbacks and flashforwards gives new desirability to the word, linear.
As the story is first presented, David Aames (Tom Cruise) is the handsome, playboy head of a publishing empire having inherited 51% of the company from his dead father. Not having risen through the ranks, nor served in any journeyman capacity that might have trained him in business, or sobered him to responsibility, he spends his time skiing, partying and making out with the gloriously sexy Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz). His energetic lovemaking with her, we quickly learn, is not part of any kind of commitment on his part. We also learn, this arrangement is not satisfying her needs, as fullfilling as the sex might be ("4 times last night!").
Strutting around at a birthday bash he has thrown for himself, to which he has invited all his friends and business partners, but inexplicably excluded Julie, (who turns up nonetheless), he's stopped in his tracks by the arrival of Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz) the guest of his best friend, Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), a struggling writer and someone way below David's economic station.
Well, the meeting is devastating in its impact on David's physical and emotional destiny. Julie watches as her lover is overcome by the magnetic allure of his exotic guest. David ends up in Sofia's apartment, sleeps over without having sex and, in the morning, as he is about to get into his car, is confronted by Julie who has clearly been stalking him. Against all logic, he agrees to get into her car for a drive and talk to clear up some things about their relationship, as though it needed clarity.
The speed of the drive increases as she screams accusations at him until, pushing 90, she drives off a bridge into a cement wall. She dies but he wakes up weeks later with a disfigured face and body. But the fractures aren't his alone. This is where the story itself takes a disjointing turn from which it never recovers as it flashes into another time line. David is surrealistically in a jail cell on a murder charge, masked behind a facial prosthetic which was offered to him by his surgeons as part of the process of healing. Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell), a court appointed shrink, attempts to interview him for a mental evaluation and we now suspect everything we've seen before is a flashback.
As David reticantly bonds with the psychologist, he flashes into another realm in which he struggles to regain his love relationship with Sofia but, even as he makes love to Sofia she turns into Julie and he screams about her not dying and about a conspiracy against him. In a bar, he meets up with Edmund Ventura (Noah Taylor) a new character, who seems to know what's going on and attempts to explain it to David. Would that he would, but David distrusts and rejects the offer. No matter -- by this time the puzzle is irredeemable. If there was any sympathy for anyone in this pretentious maze, it is dissipated by the lapse into unrealized story threads and general incomprehensibility.
My guess is that Crowe thought his ending would make all the pieces fall into place. What he neglects to take into account is that, by then, he has lost his audience. Too little too late.
Another part of the problem is that superficiality is intrinsic to Cruise and only depth in the writing can lend him some degree of worthiness. He's an intelligent, hugely handsome lightweight who can be capable of dimension if its in the material and in the handling by a sensitive director. Here, he's pretty much left to romp within his own, limited playground of nuance and awareness, resorting to the lowest common denominator of acting skills. Teen age girls might revel in his physical charms. The rest of us yearn for sympathetic attachment to his character and his angst. As he struggles with his realites we are struggling for involvement, but are left disinterested on the wayside of unrealized hopes.
Cruz has a bouncy personality with exotic sexuality though one gets the strong impression that the idiomatic expressions she utters are completely alien to her. Not an actress to turn a part into a living experience, her spurts of animation seem an attempt to cover speech awkwardness. Diaz, no slouch in the looks department, pouts and protests with some spunk as well, but there's not a suffiency of range or challenge in the role to call her part a standout. Kurt Russell, on the other hand, comes off with very attractive control and a high degree of naturalness, and it suggests that we ought to be seeing more of him.
Tilda Swinton is a great casting as a cryogenics promoter with an almost alien perfection. This underworked acting phenom energizes but isn't enough to salvage the over 2 hour enterprise. Superficial relationships and intense self-absorption are the themes and the mentality here.
The soundtrack, as might be expected from Cameron Crowe, is huge. Notable is the final track over end credits, "Where Do I Begin?", by the Chemical Brothers, sung by Beth Orton.
Estimated cost: $68,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $100,000,000.