In Defense of Indulgence

The Bitter Sweetness of Vanilla Sky

Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky (2001) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

How do you respond when someone says, indulge me a minute? Do you roll your eyes, or do you lean in with interest?

This question occurred to me recently as I tried to contextualize a longstanding disagreement between myself and one of my oldest friends. This friend likes to mock my preference for “indulgent” works by “indulgent” storytellers, and I would never deny a taste for such maximalist works, the ones that come loaded with flaws by virtue of their glorious ambitions. I can’t deny the risk I run by repeatedly leaning in as artists embrace outright self-indulgence; I know there’s a good chance I’ll end up inviting a regrettable slog. But I also know there’s a chance I’ll end up experiencing something extraordinary. And nowhere in my decades of film fandom have I encountered a more fascinating case of self-indulgence than the diptych of Abre los ojos and Vanilla Sky, two films identical in plot but divergent in story, one told and the other shouted, one chilly and distant and the other seeming to have been shot from inside the most passionate depths of the director’s soul.

In either case, we begin with a dream so unsubtle that even the script can’t pretend it’s mysterious: a fabulously wealthy man wakes up in his luxurious apartment, drives out of his building’s subterranean garage, and gradually realizes the city is vacant. When he reaches what should be the busiest crossroads, the emptiness goes from surprising to shocking, and he’s left with no choice but to step out and marvel at the unpopulated metropolis.

Obviously this dream represents existential loneliness. This is the simple conclusion that either man offers to his court-appointed therapist, and with that settled, in neither case does the story revisit the image.

Prior to that summarial explanation, however, these two sequences diverge in the most dramatic of ways. In Abre los ojos, the 1997 Sundance selection written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, the protagonist’s awestruck response to a vacant Madrid street is shot with a simple receding crane and an ominous swelling of strings and horns. It’s a stirring moment, but one that evaporates as that man awakens and the story begins in earnest, his alienation now firmly established.

In Vanilla Sky, the 2001 Paramount remake written and directed by Cameron Crowe, the protagonist’s awestruck response to a vacant Times Square is scored to thundering trip hop; rather than simply receding, the camera swoops and pushes while the screen is simultaneously assaulted by intercut glimpses of advertisements and magazine covers. Before the awakening that begins the plot, he throws his head back and spreads his arms, screaming at the heavens as the camera whirls like a carousel.

Vanilla Sky | Paramount Pictures

Crowe’s sequence devours narrative oxygen, leaving the viewer reeling and moving into the story a step behind the storyteller. Not only is the image of a vacant Times Square breathtaking, not only is the execution kinetic to the point of sensory overload, it begs extratextual questions. How’d they do that? for the uninitiated; hey, remember when they did that? for anyone who followed entertainment journalism in 2001, when the high-profile production became fraught with tabloid intrigue. Across the two decades since it was shot, this opening has loomed larger than the story that follows, yanking the viewer out of the experience before the experience has a chance to begin.

And yet it’s exactly this lopsidedness that makes Cameron Crowe’s fifth directorial effort such a fascinating object. Vanilla Sky is a film composed entirely of dissonance, from the jarring switchbacks between cerebral sci-fi and realistic humanism to the clanging of Crowe’s strengths against his emergent weaknesses. And while this unnerving disharmony has long alienated viewers, for a modest but vocal contingent of fans, the incoherence of vision yields intrigue, demanding repeat viewings to puzzle over the Cameron Crowe equivalent of a Shakespearean problem play.

In the DVD feature “Prelude to a Dream,” Crowe describes Vanilla Sky as “a movie that extends an invitation: wherever you want to meet it, it will meet you there.” It’s a romantic statement, but one with a whiff of equivocation: it’s whatever you want, don’t ask me. Prior Crowe projects could be described with a simple turn of phraseSay Anything… and Singles are both rich, idiosyncratic works, but ones that can be comfortably classified as, respectively, teen romance and post-grad ensemble comedy. In “Prelude to a Dream,” however, Crowe describes Vanilla Sky as “a story, a puzzle, a nightmare, a lucid dream, a psychedelic pop song” and beyond. In such elaborate and contradictory enumeration, there’s a sense that the filmmaker himself is still struggling to get his hands around his own project. Vanilla Sky is, indeed, many things, but most prominently, it’s a film at odds with itself.

The narrative arc of Vanilla Sky traces something like the spiritual redemption of David Aames, fabulously wealthy, sexually voracious, charming and narcissistic publishing heir played by Tom Cruise. On the night of David’s birthday party, he meets the outrageously charming Sofia (Penélope Cruz, reprising her role from Amenábar’s film) and the two share a storybook night of chaste romance before David is lured into the car of his unstable sometime-lover Julie (Cameron Diaz), who drives off a bridge in a fit of agonized jealousy, killing herself and destroying David’s face. Even surgical reconstruction leaves David’s features so twisted that strangers can barely make eye contact, with his only recourse being a rubber mask that appears like a half-finished mold for a Tom Cruise Halloween costume.

The plot of Vanilla Sky is the plot of Abre los ojos; in any surface-level summary, the names of Crowe’s characters could be replaced by Amenábar’s without a single nuance lost in the bargain. At the halfway point, however, this fidelity suddenly mutates, and Amenábar’s structure becomes the canvas onto which Crowe overlays a startling influx of raw personal vision.

Following a night of drunken despair, David is revived by Sofia and granted a new lease on life as the two resume their romance while his face is swiftly surgically repaired. This bliss, however, is interrupted by surreal episodes in which Sofia intermittently transforms into the deceased Julie, leading a frenzied and disoriented David to finally murder his shape-shifting lover, landing him in the prison from which he has narrated the story to court-appointed therapist McCabe (Kurt Russell). In one of those shock twist endings that dominated the turn of the millenium, it’s revealed that the abrupt reversal of David’s fortunes is the result of his enrollment in a cryogenic program that generated a made-to-order lucid dream in whichas the program’s sales pitch explains“life…[continues] as a realistic work of art painted by you minute to minute.” With this tumbler in place, the preceding half of the film is revealed to be loaded with samples from popular culture, as David and Sofia have reenacted moments from the swooning cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan1 to the romantic yearning of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, with even McCabe revealed as an embodiment of that paragon of righteous decency, Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.

Vanilla Sky Bob Dylan

This notion of a media-inflected dreamscape is the feature most self-evidently distinguishing Vanilla Sky from Abre los ojos, in which the lucid dream is differentiated solely through the abrupt shifts into nightmare. But throughout, Crowe makes consistent efforts to align the framework of Amenábar’s film with his own sensibilities. Abre los ojos is all plot,2 a feature-length Twilight Zone existing entirely in relation to a shocking reveal and featuring the same thin characterization of as many of Rod Serling’s half-hour allegories.3 And Cameron Crowe, at least prior to Vanilla Sky, was never a filmmaker for whom plot was of paramount concern.

Crowe’s best movies excel first and foremost as examples of story. Say Anything… loses its footing only once the story of Lloyd and Diane’s romance is complicated by the third act plot injection of her father’s fraud. What little plot intrigue there might be in Almost Famouscan William secure an interview with the reluctant Rusell before missing too much school?falls secondary to the story of self-discovery on the road. The only active antagonist in Jerry Maguireat least once the conniving Bob Sugar fades into the background after act oneis Jerry’s own worst instincts, yielding a story of romance and growth that’s refreshingly devoid of the plot contrivance that so often plagued ‘90s rom-coms. With time, these most renowned Crowe films have come to be remembered more for isolated character moments than for narrative beatsthe tour bus singalong of Almost Famous, a sweaty and desperate Jerry begging his sole client to “Help me help you!”

Here lies the most significant dissonance in Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe’s problem film: an artist with a very specific set of strengths was asked4 to make a film that would seem to utilize none of them. Watching Vanilla Sky in tandem with Abre los ojos, it’s clear that Crowe’s first urge was to identify plot gaps into which he might inject his style of story, beginning with dimensionalizing Amenábar’s intentionally thin characters. Where Abre los ojos features a cipher protagonist able to represent the collective unconscious archetype of wealthy playboys, Crowe lends David a family history defined by a withholding father, one that just barely transcends “daddy issues” tropes by virtue of a few graceful storytelling brushstrokeshis father, David tells McCabe, “never watched television, yet his biggest magazine is still the TV Digest,” one of those effortlessly vivid turns of phrase that characterize the best of Crowe’s writing.

This expansion of David’s interiority, however, creates dynamics that confuse the story’s aims. Crowe, constitutionally unable to tell the story of an outright cruel protagonist, takes any possible opportunity to hang ostensibly redemptive qualities onto David, creating drag on a story that’s built to move with ruthless efficiency. Crowe’s equivalent of Amenábar’s one-dimensional hangdog best friend is novelist Brian (Jason Lee) whom David is financially supporting to allow time for his creative work. While theoretically positioning David as a patron of the arts and selfless friend, the shift raises a host of questions as to the unbalanced nature of this relationship, particularly once David absconds with Sofia, whom Brian had brought to the party with his own romantic designs. It’s one thing to see a character accept that he’s been bested on the levels of charm and beautyas in Amenábar’s telling, and as Crowe’s would seem to invitebut with the implicit factor that causing a fuss might destroy Brian’s livelihood, David’s choice takes on a distressing air of sexual extortion.

The ungainliness that comes from grafting humanist storytelling onto cerebral plotting reaches its nadir with Julie, whom David sees as a source of on-demand sex while conveniently failing to notice her clear emotional attachment. In Abre los ojos, the Julie analog is the ultimate femme fatale, so thin that “one-dimensional” might be an overstatement. Crowe seems to chafe against the idea that any character, even a murderous lover, should be mere plot device, and so he grants Julie a visible interiority. Not only is she now an aspiring actress and singer, her existential pain is positioned for maximum sympathetic focusin one of the film’s most effectively poignant moments, Julie’s eyes fill with tears when she sees David flirting with Sofia, even as she feigns nonchalance when the pair look her way. “I think she is the saddest girl to ever hold a martini,” Sofia sighs, offering Julie more consideration in one line of dialogue5 than Amenábar offers to her equivalent in an entire film.

Beholden as the story is to the arc of Amenábar’s plot, Julie’s characterization becomes a contradictory messCrowe dutifully includes lines referring to her as a stalker and a psycho, rendering David callous to the point of monstrousness given the viewer’s awareness of her vulnerability. Any suggestion that this might be an intentional wrinkle in David’s characterization is thrown into disarray during Julie’s homicidal high-speed breakdown, whichlike the entirety of her plot functionfeels stranded somewhere between camp hysteria and sincere portrait of manic distress. As Julie howls, “When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not,” it’s impossible to know whether Crowe intends this as urgent truism or further proof of delusion.

Cameron Diaz in Vanilla Sky (2001) | Paramount Pictures

For as frustrating as Crowe’s debatably-coherent storytelling can be, it does generate an often-thrilling unpredictability. When the chilly and minimalist Abre los ojos takes takes a turn towards hallucinatory violence, any uncertainty is purely cerebral thanks to the familiar playbook established by other contemporary thrillers. Vanilla Sky, meanwhile, is suffused with as much raw yearning, and as many swooning needle drops, as Almost Famous, which leave the emergent hints of David’s forthcoming violence carrying a queasy sense of genuinely undiscovered territory. When a filmmaker who traffics in overwhelming surges of the heartfrom the instantly-iconic boombox serenade of Say Anything… to Jerry Maguire’s climactic “You complete me”teases bloodshed, the potential risk to viewer sensitivities feels unusually potent.

This ultimate burst of violencemid-coitus, Sofia transforms into Julie, whom David smothers with a pillow only for her to be replaced by Sofia post-mortemis set to the hyperbolic psych-rock strains of The Monkees’ “The Porpoise Song,” a choice so perversely specific it could come from no other mind than Cameron Crowe’s. If there’s a sense of compromise in Crowe’s adoption of Amenábar’s plot, in exchange he is awarded the opportunity to sprint through an unlimited cultural dreamscape, one he accepts with gleeful abandon. 

In one of his myriad attempts to dimensionalize David, Crowe characterizes him as a man filling his inner void with mediawe get multiple indications that David watches old movies to lull himself to sleep, laying the groundwork for the infusion of art into his unconscious worldand if it may be hard to envision this ostensibly parasitic diletante as soulful enough to be moved by the image on a Bob Dylan LP, extending that suspension of disbelief allows the space for a remarkable act of directorial projection.

Cameron Crowe is a man self-evidently consumed by pop culture. In his cinematic memoir, Almost Famous, William (a character identical to Crowe in all but name) is catalyzed from childhood into adolescence the moment he opens a box of vinyl rock & roll, while rock critic Lester Bangs (mentor to William in fiction and Crowe in life) rhapsodically describes art as something that lives in “the vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain…a place apart from the vast benign lap of America.” To be a fan, another character later announces, is to love some “silly little” work “so much that it hurts.”

In a 2002 guest column for The Guardian, Crowe describes David as “defined, like so many of us, by pop culture,” and cites the essential question of Vanilla Sky as: “where does a real life begin, and where does pop culture end?” Despite Crowe’s claims, it’s a question of far greater urgency to the creator than the character, and by way of investigating it, he did something like externalize his own interiority. Crowe conjures a world of sensory ecstasy that conforms to his own aesthetic preferences, with the pop culture hallmarks theoretically beloved by David being transparently those beloved by Crowe; McCabe’s riff on To Kill a Mockingbird is foreshadowed in Almost Famous when the character modeled on Crowe’s mother lauds her son for choosing Atticus Finch as his role model, while David’s prized Townshend-smashed guitar would seem an appropriate object of affection for the man who profiled The Who in his youth.

In the lower moments of any pop culture obsessive’s life, the idea of escaping into “a realistic work of art painted by you minute to minute” would seem likewell, a dream come true. And Crowe imbues the back half of Vanilla Sky with enough of his own heart that when David makes the ultimate choice to plummet off the dreamscape skyscraper and awaken into reality, the explosion of fragmentary images representing a life flashing before his eyes are a blend of David’s and Crowe’s ownalongside glimpses of the film’s preceding events and a cascade of pop culture samples from Townshend to The Red Balloon, we see photos of Crowe as a child, his then-wife Nancy Wilson, snatches of Crowe family home movies, and behind-the-scenes candids from prior Crowe projects, all coalescing with other cultural detritus to form a mosaic portrait of the director’s heart and soul.

As glimpsed in the closing montage, a Crowe family photo that should look familiar to any fan of Almost Famous

With the only deviations between Amenábar’s film and Crowe’s being unusually personal touches that reflect either his unique storytelling sensibilities or his deepest passions, it’s not hard to see why Vanilla Sky’s largely negative reception would be unusually painful. While Rotten Tomatoes is an admittedly flawed barometer, there’s something chilling in the plummet between the 85% “certified fresh” critical approval granted Abre los ojos and the 42% slapped on Vanilla Sky. “Who would have thought that Cameron Crowe had a movie as bad as Vanilla Sky in him?” Stephanie Zacharek mused in her Salon review, and the phrasing is apt. If the original was good but the remake (ostensibly) bad, then the objectionable elements must have been the ones in him. “The knotty truth that’s hardest to reckon with,” according to Zacharek “is that Crowe’s greatest gift flowers here with as much lushness as it has in every one of his previous movies—and for the first time, it’s completely ineffective.”

With this disappointment, Crowe seemed to catch a significant case of the the yips, that unofficial diagnosis for a star athlete who abruptly loses the ability to perform. After releasing the beloved Almost Famousfor which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplayand the divisive Vanilla Sky in consecutive years, he waited four years before premiering Elizabethtown, a return to gentle comic realism that was greeted with near-universal revulsion6; after a six-year absence, he returned with a low-risk low-reward adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s well-regarded memoir We Bought a Zoo,7 and having regained that modest ground in the public eye, he pivoted back to original storytelling and produced Aloha, a virtually incomprehensible assemblage of disjointed ideas and writerly tics.8 When Steve Blass went from star pitcher of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1971 World Series bid to walking an average of one batter per inning in the 1973 season, his pitching coach told The New Yorker, “I don’t think anybody will ever understand his decline,” and Crowe’s fall from grace seems similarly inexplicable.

It’s easy to imagine that, whether consciously or not, Crowe might blame his career schism on the rejection of Vanilla Sky. Elizabethtownanother story loosely modeled on Crowe’s own life, this time his experiences processing his father’s deathincludes elements of parodic self-flagellation, with the protagonist having recently experienced his own professional fiasco. “A failure,” Crowe’s stand-in clarifies in the opening monologue, “is simply the non-presence of success…a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.” Whatever Crowe may believe, though, Vanilla Sky is no fiasco; Box Office Mojo claims a worldwide gross of nearly quadruple the budget, and even in his own scathing review for Time, Richard Corliss was willing to grant Crowe “one wild misfire at no lasting cost to his reputation.” It does, however, bear the earliest inklings of the weaknesses that would soon overwhelm his strengths. 

These blind spots are often benign, albeit baffling. In perhaps the most egregious example, Sofia and David playfully challenge themselves to draw one another’s weaknesses. The scene is directly recreated from Abre los ojos, but where in Amenábar’s telling Sofia delivers a realistically amateur drawing, in Crowe’s she reveals a professional-quality boardwalk caricature. It’s hard to envision such a choice making it from conception to execution without a single crew member flagging it as ridiculous, but behind-the-scenes footage does suggest a crew actively withholding constructive criticism.

In “Prelude to a Dream,” an on-set documentarian asks multiple crew members, during the setup to one particularly obtuse image (a post-accident David’s apartment floor coated in a grid of countless documents), “What do you think this shot means?” “It’s confusing,” one answers. “I don’t know,” answers another. A third describes the shot in literal terms before the documentarian again prods him to explain the meaning. “Cameron knows,” he replies with deadpan exhaustion. Crowe eventually answers, with playful exuberance, “It’s cramming for the finals of life!” and while the wild success of his prior work might understandably lead others to trust his instincts, “trust” would not seem the operative feeling for Crowe’s crew. Though the inclusion of the moment in a promotional reel indicates a level of goodwill, it lands as a painful testament to the liability an unchecked auteur can prove to his own art.

More troublesome are the early shockwaves of Crowe’s most ignominious, if indirect, contribution to the modern cultural landscape: the trope of the manic pixie dream girl. This now-ubiquitous term was coined when critic Nathan Rabin pegged Kirsten Dunst’s Elizabethtown love interest as typifying a class of character that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As the term has spread, it’s evolved from simple aesthetic criticism to a signifier of far more significant cultural problems. In a 2013 essay, author Laurie Penny writes of the “sharp pain under the ribcage” she experienced as a young reader when she noticed “how few girls got to go on adventures.” With Elizabethtown, Crowe inadvertently carved out a platform for renewed consideration of the damage done when girls are conditioned to expect, as Penny writes, “to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we’re lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero’s shoulder and carried off the end of the final page.”

In a vacuum, Vanilla Sky might be read as refuting this male urge to see women as selfless (and self-free) saviors. David may believe he’s charmed by Sofia, but what he seems most captivated by is a wall of photos in her apartment, intimate flashes of her life—from family portraits to semi-nude candids—that she’s assembled for her own pleasure and that he’s able to use as the base to extrapolate an idealized existence he might escape into. “I like your life,” he sighs as he examines this display, remaining blissfully undeterred when she responds, “Well it’s mine, and you can’t have it.” The final revelation that their romance has been a synthetic private commission lands with a damning blow—“You barely knew her in real life,” David is reminded, and it rings out like an implicit warning for any solipsistic man who falls in love with the idea of a woman only to resent her for daring to have independent wants and needs.

But one final complicating wrinkle points to Crowe’s future problematic characterizations: among the last revelations provided by David’s in-dream technical support, Edmund Ventura (Noah Taylor), is the fact that in the real world, “Sofia never fully recovered” from the loss of David. Immediately after cautioning men against escaping into solitary fantasies, Crowe indulges that hideous fantasy that one’s loss might debilitate those by whom they feel underappreciated. From a storyteller previously capable of creating such vivid characters that they seem to exist beyond the bounds of their own films,9 it seems like a particularly cruel betrayal that Crowe should damn Sofia to never attain true happiness after one night with a manipulative narcissist.

Like so many elements of Vanilla Sky, it’s difficult to reconcile Sofia’s story. But it’s exactly these thorny dissonances that attract the film’s proponents. This may be Cameron Crowe’s problem film, but problems do generally have solutions, and so I find myself compulsively studying it, and in the bargain I’m treated to such classic Crowe grace notes as the eerie serpentine dance that David abruptly breaks into at the close of one meeting with McCabe. These moments are as singular as any flourish in Almost Famous, but they sing with electric incongruity within a hallucinatory thriller. In “Prelude to a Dream,” Crowe describes his goal of creating a movie “like the cover of Sgt. Pepper—every time you look at it, you might see something different,” and I’d have to argue he succeeded. Even after decades of rewatching, only on this most recent revisit did I fully absorb the stirring contrast between unusually naturalistic street-level shots of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the same event seen from inside the darkened apartment that David lurks within post-accident.

Vanilla Sky | Paramount Pictures

One egregious Crowe flourish did end up on the cutting room floor: in an alternate ending,10 the sphinx-like Edmund Ventura grows weary of painstakingly untangling the film’s labyrinthine reality to his client and snaps, “I gave you everything! I even gave you a theme song by Paul McCartney, which is very hard material to acquire!”

The line is a natural candidate for excision; it has no plot function, and the concept makes virtually no sense in any context. It’s a moment of pure indulgence, Crowe winking at the coup de grâce he achieved by commissioning an end credits song from the onetime Beatle. The choice to lose Ventura’s preemptive victory lap seems even more prudent given the fact that McCartney’s song is extraordinarily silly, even by the standards of the man who wrote “Yellow Submarine.” Less a song than a melodic word salad,11 McCartney’s work testifies to the mammoth difficulty of his assignment, one not unlike Crowe’s own: he was handed an inspiration and forced to work backwards to apply his talents.

That directive, in McCartney’s case, was to spin a song out of a meaningless pairing of words: “vanilla sky.” Crowe bends over backwards to incorporate the words into the script—in a particularly credulity-straining line, David shows Sofia an original Monet, bragging that the artist’s own brush “painted the vanilla sky”—and works even harder to justify it thematically in that Guardian column, where he cites the theoretical resemblance between Monet’s sky and the sky of David’s lucid dream. “In ways he could never have imagined, that sky returns later to define who he is,” Crowe writes, and so the title represents “a feeling, a state of mind, a dream of a life that may or may not actually exist.” Once again, Crowe lapses into excessive enumeration, but this time he admits the truth: “Okay, I just like the way the words sounded.”

It’s a shame Crowe felt so compelled to fight against his own urges, burdening his film with leaden dialogue to defend the fully defensible choice of titling an often-abstract film with an abstract phrase. In overthinking his impulse, he tripped over his own feet, and this increasing loss of flow would damn him to a case of the yips so severe that only his most devoted fans still hold out hope he might recover.12

Perhaps my own devotion isn’t strong enough to hold out that hope. It’s hard to imagine we’ll see another film as effortlessly perfect as Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous. But if we’re lucky, we might see another film as endlessly fascinating as Vanilla Sky. Crowe has always likened his film to a cover version of Amenábar’s, the punk take on Amenábar’s folk song. But it strikes me that the more apt comparison would be that Amenábar’s film says, Let me tell you a story, while Cameron Crowe’s says, Indulge me a minute. And for all the messes I may be forced to tangle with, I’ll keep leaning forward with interest. As beleaguered artist Brian so often reminds his manipulative patron throughout the story of their unbalanced friendship, life’s sweetness is always sweeter with a confounding taste of the bitter.