Vanilla Sky and The Royal Tenenbaums reviewed.

Vanilla Sky and The Royal Tenenbaums reviewed.

Vanilla Sky and The Royal Tenenbaums reviewed.

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Dec. 14 2001 10:38 AM

Close Your Eyes

Vanilla Sky leaves a bad taste; Wes Anderson traps his actors in The Royal Tenenbaums.

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The prospect of sitting through another hapless Hollywood remake of a foreign art film is only mildly more enticing than a colon exam; that said, I was hoping for a better night out from Vanilla Sky (Paramount), Cameron Crowe's MTV-style mortification of the 1997 Spanish psychodrama Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). No matter what else they lack, Crowe's movies— Say Anything ..., Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous—have a core of feeling: You can discern the writer-director's struggle to spin his fear of loneliness into doleful comic gold. And he was reportedly excited about translating Alejandro Amenábar's surreal meditation on identity into Hollywood-ese, perhaps as a happy respite from having to streamline his own experiences in such projects as last year's Almost Famous. But Crowe is like a Method actor whose talent is proportional to how much of himself he can draw upon. It speaks well for him that he can't identify too closely with the dream life of Tom Cruise.

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The template that he's working from (and to which he has stayed faithful) is a hysterical but resonant fantasy: Rooted in solipsism, Abre los Ojos successfully evolves into a sci-fi exploration of solipsism's perils. A rich, jaw-droppingly handsome young man (Eduardo Noriega) who treats women and close male friends with casual disregard, feels the first stirrings of real love in the presence of a beautiful but authentically quirky woman (Penélope Cruz). His spurned female lover then rises like a wraith to destroy his face—which means his life is destroyed, too, since his world has only existed to accommodate (and reflect) his shallow beauty. In the second half, his visage might or might not be repaired and he might or might not end up with the nice girl—disorientation comes thick and fast. The film builds to an awakening that's both physical and emotional: "Eyes Wide Shut" would have made a good title, better for this parable than for Stanley Kubrick's somnolent dream-movie.

The title of the American version is a reference to the seductive palette of Monet, whose world the protagonist, David Aames (Cruise), longs to inhabit. He makes a speech to that effect to Penélope Cruz, who repeats her role in English, or what's meant to be English—the vowels are rearranged and the consonants somewhat approximate. The Monet monologue is only one of Cruise's unconvincing scenes; he radiates inauthenticity even in a rubber mask. Admiring his silken locks in one of innumerable mirrors, Cruise portrays self-intoxication the way Sylvester Stallone portrays obnoxiousness: The self-send-up is so superficial, and so suffused with the real thing, that he ends up looking like the only one who's not in on the joke.

Aames is not just a rich boy but a hip-magazine publishing magnate, a change that seems calculated to give the star the opportunity to act out his Jann Wenner/Graydon Carter fantasies but that only adds distractions (and red herrings). His lifestyle is probably also meant to justify Crowe's rock-video syntax, which is designed to show how Aames is even further distanced from his real self by all the TV monitors, giant video billboards, and holograms that fill his space. There's nothing inherently wrong with this strategy; it seems an honest attempt by Crowe to use his beloved rock 'n' roll (many of the songs were written by old friends as well as by his wife, Nancy Wilson) to underscore the hero's dislocation.

The problem is that Crowe and Amenábar come from opposite vantage points on popular culture. The Spaniard (he made his English-language debut with TheOthers) dips into his literature's rich tradition of subjectivity-as-reality (la vida es sueño and all that) to portray fantasy as a solipsistic dead end. Crowe, on the other hand, has built his aesthetic on the belief that passionate fantasy (especially rock-'n'-roll fantasy) is the best way to transcend the self and make contact with other people. It's no wonder that Crowe can't generate any real feeling. The narrative is alien to him on every level.

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The ear-grating dialogue is a good indication that he didn't know what he was doing; he's usually pitch-perfect. I was too busy wincing to get down the worst line—something about how after you go off a bridge at 80 miles an hour, you don't accept happiness without a full body search. (It's hard to read my paraphrase without wincing.) Even the casting is screwy. Kurt Russell reportedly agreed to play Cruise's psychiatrist before he'd read the script; he kept his word after he had read it, which makes him both an honorable man and an incredible sucker. As the demonically obsessive woman whom Cruise throws over to make happy-talk with his cartoon Spanish mouse, Cameron Diaz throws the whole ominous dreamscape out of whack: I can think of many words to describe the notion of going to bed with Penélope Cruz and waking up with Cameron Diaz, but "nightmare" isn't one of them.

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In Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (Touchstone), the estranged, self-centered father (Gene Hackman) of a family of tortured geniuses discovers he's broke and tries to wheedle his way back into the hearts of his wife and grown children. It's the sort of role that has "Jack Lemmon" written all over it—i.e., slippery shading into moist. But Hackman gives the con-man lines a simple, straight-ahead urgency that makes the man first hilarious and then, as the pleasures of human company are withdrawn and his resentment begins to bubble up, inexplicably touching. This is a great performance: It transcends Anderson's jokey, near-symmetrical frames (the film is designed as a kind of "only in New York" children's storybook, with the characters living in life-size dollhouses) and achieves its own truth.

The rest of the movie has moments: It's an elegant, witty frame that hasn't been filled in. Anderson wants to show the Tenenbaum kids (played by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson, with co-writer Owen Wilson as a neighbor and "honorary" Tenenbaum) as having been driven by their unhappy upbringing to turn themselves into caricatures—and then to show how miserably trapped they are in their own personae. But apart from Hackman, the actors look more trapped by Anderson's rigid framing, color scheme, and enforced deadpan. Paltrow manages to be funny as the playwright who's a prisoner of her own woe (her eyes are rimmed with black, but she wears little-girl Lacoste dresses), and Owen Wilson does a riotous stoned-paranoid shtick on a send-up of Charlie Rose (Larry Pine slouches artfully in the role), but Anderson doesn't throw the others (especially the seething, one-note Stiller) any lifelines.

At least he's responsive to criticism. At this year's New York Film Festival in September, the pop songs vied with the actors for attention (the actors came in second) and Mark Mothersbaugh's nudge-nudge score left me feeling as if my ribs had all been broken. In the face of critics' complaints, most of that music is gone now, and the volume has been lowered on the vocals, too. That means that some of the lamer jokes play to eerie silence, but the performers—and their emotions—have less competition from the show-off Wunderkind director. It's an excellent trade-off and one that bodes well for the next installment in young Wes' oeuvre.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.