Vanilla Vertigo

King of masks: Tom Cruise in 'Vanilla Sky'
Neal Preston

In the woebegone days of Old Hollywood, movie stars came in all flavors. But at a recent press conference in Toronto starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, and their Vanilla Sky director Cameron Crowe, it ain't the taste of cherry that has us salivating at the salt lick.

Nonchalantly underdressed in a fleece pullover, Cruise recycles lines from the press kit about the film's "emotional reality," diverging from the script only to butter up Toronto--where he earned his pilot's license ("while Nic was making To Die For")--and its native son, Atom Egoyan ("I think he's brilliant"). Meanwhile, Cruz, resplendent in a buckskin wrap, merely looks prepared for the title role in All the Pretty Horses 2. Seated between the pair, perhaps to discourage "personal questions" (or photos that don't include him?), the almost-famous journalist-turned-A-list-auteur Crowe endures 25 minutes of platitudes before finding the opportunity to name-drop Billy Wilder.

Bookending the dais are huge Cruise posters pushing Vanilla Sky (which opens Friday!), a remake of Spanish director Alejandro Ámenabar's Open Your Eyes (1997)--itself a virtual(-reality) remake of Vertigo. Indeed, simulacrum is piled high here. Beneath a flurry of flashbulbs, Cruise crows, "The original [film] left room to be covered by [Crowe's] band"--which the actor fronts, in a way, his character wailing Joan Osbourne's "One of Us" while hepped up on sedatives and being wheeled into surgery. Grinning at his star's insouciance, Crowe relates Ámenabar's full approval of the Cruise-initiated project (and, surely, of the check for this, that, and The Others). Eyes and Vanilla are "like brothers," says a beaming Crowe--"only one likes opera and the other likes rock and roll." (Whatever: Is Penélope a Scientologist yet?)

It must have taken screenwriter Crowe the better part of a week to separate one of these siblings and teach it to be "a Cameron Crowe film": that is, the prehensile, pop culture-inflected tale of a privileged adolescent white guy whose unerring belief in true love compensates for a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. There are other differences as well. In Open Your Eyes, the protagonist is a prick, and Cruz's Sofia is a mime--whereas, in Vanilla Sky, Cruise's Aames is a "pleasure delayer" being stalked by a psycho strumpet played by Cameron Diaz...but there's something about Penélope. (Just ask Matt Damon.) The remake's elongated running time permits plenty of Cruise/Cruz interludes--which reveal less chemistry than the most recent lineup of Styx.

Yet Vanilla Sky certainly isn't without metatextual interest: the solipsistic resemblance to Eyes Wide Shut with Cruise and "Nic"; Aames's offhand remark that his favorite Beatle is George; and, most of all, the star texts of Cruise, Cruz, and Crowe. After an accident results in the archetypal actor's nightmare, that of gross facial disfigurement (still more shades of Monty Clift?), Cruise alternates between impersonating Quasimodo and perspiring behind an "aesthetic regenerative shield" (plucked from the Kubrick reject bin--for looking too human?) that makes him resemble...Cameron Crowe. Thus robbed of his capacity for gratuitous mugging, this "new" Cruise unwittingly reflects the personality crisis of today's most celebrated performers and, by extension, their vanilla culture. No doubt Crowe sees the troubled Aames as a Dylan surrogate, although the former rock "critic" seems to have forgotten how, in "Masters of War," the soothsayer lectures the stars: "I just want you to know/I can see through your masks."

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