Disfigurement isn’t a subject that leaps to mind as the hook for a Tom Cruise movie, but whatever goes wrong in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (and not a lot goes right), the film does at least have the courage to pose the question, What are you left with if you take away Tom Cruise’s face? The answer, I’m afraid, is, Not very much. Cruise, whose star magnetism is matched by his actor’s skill at modulating that magnetism, is always at his worst when he has to express the inner anguish of his being. In ”Vanilla Sky,” the cataclysmic car crash that leaves his smug-grinned Manhattan peacock (this time, he’s a Maxim-style magazine publisher) scarred and embittered is meant to be his cosmic comeuppance for a life of selfish hedonism. But the sight of Cruise looking like a yuppie Phantom of the Opera or, worse, hissing dialogue from behind an eerie, form-fitting latex mask is creepy in all the wrong ways. Instead of provoking empathy, the ugly-duckling nightmare only heightens our awareness of Cruise’s vanity.
Not to worry, though?it’s all just a dream! Or maybe not. It’s my job to parse the inconsistencies of even the most confusing movies, but halfway though ”Vanilla Sky,” there wasn’t much I could do but throw up my hands. Are Cameron Diaz, as Cruise’s violently unstable casual-sex buddy, and Penelope Cruz, as the saintly photographer who tries to Show Him Love, supposed to be the same woman? The way that the movie has been edited, none of the fake-outs and reversals have any weight, and so the more that they pile up, the less we hold on to any of them. We?re left with a cracked hall of mirrors taped together by a preposterous what-is-reality? cryogenics plot and scored to Cameron Crowe’s record collection. The movie does have a few arresting visual tricks, like the opening Times Square-in-the-Twilight Zone fantasia, but if Crowe’s eyes are open, he seems to have directed most of ”Vanilla Sky” with his mind wide shut.