Movie Review of The Nines
by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person
Directed by John August
Written by John August
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Elle Fanning, Dahlia Salem, David Denman, Octavia Spencer, Ben Falcone
Official Site: look for the nines
Howard Waldrop: This reminded me of nothing so much as a film-school grad student's movie: Heavy on concept, earnest as all get-out, and it has more engine than rear axle.
Lawrence Person: Writer/Director John August's film is intermittently intriguing and unquestionably ambitious. But the ambit of August's ambition so far exceeded his grasp that it makes the movie a failure. An interesting failure, and perhaps even a noble one, as it wasn't the usual Hollywood crap dragging it down, but a failure nonetheless.
The film is broken into three segments, each deeply concerned with God Games, with the psyches of people who craft subcreations, be they TV shows or video games. It starts with a TV actor having one of those depression-and-drugs mini-katabasis that provide so much tabloid fodder. It next moves onto a reality TV show of a writer/showrunner producing a pilot for a supernatural TV series ("Think of it as Rosemary's Toddler"). The third segment moves inside that pilot, with a video game designer father, his wife, and said (older than) Toddler facing a dead car battery out in the country out of cell phone range. The same three actors (Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy) play the major roles in all three segments, and the three segments leak into each other in strange ways.
The film falls far short of its ambitions. However, perhaps the primary pleasure is the explication of those ambitions, of revealing what the film is actually about. Rather than spoil that, we're going to have to nibble around the edges in telling you what's wrong. But in the first segment, the Central Character (Reynolds, named Gary in this segment, Gavin in the second, Gabriel in the third) is told that he has nearly unlimited power, clearly hinting that we're in the realm of Powers and Principalities, and the nature of the themes to be addressed: God Games, incarnations, creations, subcreations, and the underlying nature of reality. Many films have successfully assayed such ontologies: Dogma, Donnie Darko, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Matrix, Mirrormask, and Dark City, to name a few of the most prominent examples. But all of them were manifestly better realized than The Nines.
HW: I know why the actors are in this: they get to A) look or B) act differently in each section. Of these, the second, with a writer who's getting a series picked up by a network at the same time he's being filmed by a reality TV show (something like Project Greenlight a few seasons back) while going through that meatgrinder, is the best. But pieces of all three sections keep leaking into each other (like Living in Oblivion or Boogie Nights in 2nd gear) and there's an actual caesura between the 2nd and 3rd parts where you're given information you should have.
LP: Howard is right; the second segment is not just far and away the most interesting, but more interesting than the other two combined, probably because it most closely resembles August's own life ("write what you know"). Not to mention the fact that McCarthy actually plays herself in this segment.
HW: The acting is pretty swell; besides the three principals, this has another goddammed talented Fanning kid in three roles, two where she's mute and one where she talks. The camera loves her and she's a natural, just like her big sister. Reynolds convinces you as a David Caruso/Robert Downey Jr- type in the first part; as the semi-decent writer in the second part, and as the fairly clueless game designer in the third.
LP: Actually, I thought Reynolds was pretty weak in the first segment, with some measure of the fault apportioned to both him and August. The first segment is frequently dull, meanders too much, and mostly doesn't make sense even in retrospect. We need a flawed but sympathetic character to pull us through these segments (I canít help but thinking that someone like Owen Wilson would have been a lot more appealing and interesting in this role). Candide references notwithstanding, Reynolds' Gary is too underplayed. Not that he has a lot to work with here...
HW: The profundities abound, and it ends Heavy. In the opening, we see a ball of string being unrolled, measured and cut. Are we supposed to think of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos? Or are we watching a guy tie a piece of string around his wrist so he won't forget something? This movie asks some Big Questions, but it asks them badly, or too late. The overall (not explanation, but explication) seems retrofitted to try to cover it all. It sort-of works if you were only half-assed paying attention.
There's some pretty sharp dialogue scattered all through, especially in parts one and two (part three has a different set-up, with only the principals and the kid in isolation, so the yak isn't quite as tip-top, until you get to the coda). Then the Big Heavy Stuff settles on everything you've seen like Lucite.
LP: A problem with many films of this type is that they don't actually know what they want to be when they grow up. This film suffers from the opposite problem: It knows exactly what it wants to be, but has no idea how to get there. Even the title doesn't make sense, despite several fitful stabs at it. (It should have been like Rosebud in Citizen Kane, but wasn't...)
In films that successfully dabble in mysterious metaphysical intrusions into the mundane (Donnie Darko, The Matrix, etc.), The Big Explanation makes all the previous puzzles make sense; here it doesn't. Melissa McCarthy's publicist character in the first segment has information she shouldn't have; conversely, Hope Davis' character's pursuit of her ostensible overriding goal in the first two segments is so suboptimal as to be pointless. Moreover, it doesn't explain why she breaks into song, ala Pennies From Heaven. (Just one of the many places August displays an unnecessarily heavy hand on the musical cues.)
Ultimately I'm unable to buy into August's overarching explanation. Instead of a unified vision, the film looks exactly like what it is: An attempt by four Hollywood professionals to produce a cheaply made (I'm guessing less than $1 million), independent, experimental film addressing metaphysical issues. While the result is not a complete and utter failure, it's also not interesting enough that I can recommend anyone actually going out and spending money to see it.
HW: At least this film is trying to do something, which is more than most of them have been doing the last 20 years. Like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, the things wrong with it aren't the products of a Test Group. (There's some deadly-accurate Test Group stuff in the second part of this.) I hope the director takes everything he learned failing with this and turns out One Swell Movie.
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Well I don't know that I raved about the film -- I "recommended" it, as an unexpectedly interesting art house flick that I explicitly tried not to "oversell" -- to avoid the danger of reviewer backlash. Unsuccessfully, perhaps. There's a whole essay here about the art of reviewing and the way audiences respond to books or films in reaction to reviews and critical consensus. For another time. --ed.