Monday, March 03, 2008

The Nines

    I feel very conflicted about The Nines. As a screenwriter, John August has done Go and Charlie's Angels and several collaborations with Tim Burton (including Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but his directorial debut isn't really like any of those movies. Or any other movies, now that I think about it, save maybe Donnie Darko.

    Here's the thing. August breaks tons of storytelling "rules" and conventions, and almost gets it to work for a while. I admire that. For example, the films opens with Ryan Reynolds lighting clothes on fire in a mansion, then leaving to go buy crack. We follow his character on a 10 minute crack binge without knowing anything about him. (A passing bus ad indicates that he's the star of a TV show called "Crime Lab," but that's about it for backstory).

    It's an excellent way to introduce you to this guy's world, which is chaotic and confusing, like a crack bender without the brief euphoria. It's this first story, with TV star Gary is placed under house arrest in the unoccupied mansion of another one of his agency's clients, that works the best, with August falling easily into laid-back LA comedy mode. Gary begins a peculiar flirtation with the bored married woman living next door (Hope Davis) while being looked after and scrutinzed by a expert in crisis management PR (Melissa McCarthy).

    This is where the Donnie Darko comparisons come into play. Before long, it becomes obvious to Gary that this house and his sentence in it is not entirely what it seems. He starts to notice the prevalence of the number 9, which starts showing up everywhere. And his attractive neighbor's visits start to develop an urgency, as if she's secretly trying to tell him something very important between all the banter.

    Two more segments follow, with Reynolds, Davis and McCarthy assuming different (but not entirely dissimilar) roles. In Section 2, Reynolds is a TV writer working on a pilot starring his long-time best friend (McCarthy) and overseen by a demanding network executive (Davis). Again, conflicts develop in his personal life and reality begins to unravel. In Section 3, where everything is nominally "explained," Reynolds is a video game designer stranded with his wife (McCarthy) and young daughter (Elle Fanning) in the mountains without cell reception. Davis plays a stranger who tries to help him get to the nearest town.

    It's weird and disorienting, but The Nines isn't ever boring, in part because August keeps his sense of humor amidst all the metaphysics and fantasy. Though some of the insider "Hollywood" material starts to get unnecessary and navel-gazing, particularly during the semi-autobiographical mid-section, this is probably a more insightful, humorous and on-target entertaining industry satire than most movies dedicated solely to that pursuit.

    Elaborate puzzle movies, much like professional illusionists, tend to develop an air of self-importance, a constant and aggressive presence to distract you from discovering what's really going on. But The Nines doesn't really get so serious or heady until the last 10 minutes. Which is when everything falls apart.

    It's not that August has thought up a stupid or poor ending, necessarily. As a short story, The Nines could work very well. But it doesn't work as a movie. You just can't do the things he wants to do with it. There's no way to speak some of this dialogue or play some of these scenes dramatically without sounding ridiculous.

    I'm reminded (and this is never a good comparison) of the ending of Neil LaBute's laughably atrocious remake of The Wicker Man. At the end, you've got a scene of brutal torture. If you read about such a thing, particularly if it were vividly described, it would make you recoil in horror. But watching it happen to Nicolas Cage while he screams and flails about renders it hilarious. The Nines, on the page, would likely be the kind of trippy conversation-inspiring mindfuck that August was aiming for. But watching Reynolds act it out is just...entirely fraudulent and impossible. I'm not sure how you could make this work on screen.

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