Friday, April 23, 2010

Look for The Nines

Let me preface this post by saying this: you are about to hear me at my most fanboyish.

Some time last year, I stumbled upon a review in an old issue of Entertainment Weekly for a movie called The Nines. I had never heard of the movie, but it starred Ryan Reynolds (my favorite actor) and Melissa McCarthy of Samantha Who? (Spoiler Alert: expect a Samantha post sometime in the near future), so I decided to pick it up.

If you've read my old Favorite Films blog post (check it out here: ), you'll know that I'm a fan of The Nines, but that small description isn't enough to describe all the nuances and metaphysics of this truly amazing film.

I'll say this first, though: despite all the gushing that is forthcoming, The Nines isn't a perfect film. There are small failures, but they're all forgivable, because they're all byproducts of the film's ambition.

Now, onto the gushing. (SPOILER ALERT! If you've never seen it but wanna remain surprised, don't read this.) That ambition is why this film is so phenomenal. Director John August takes the most risks and chances within one 90-minute film I've ever seen. Utilizing a miniscule cast of three each in three different roles (Reynolds is the star, with McCarthy and the fantastic Hope Davis of In Treatment's second season supporting him), plus the much better than her sister Elle Fanning in a small part that might actually be the most mystifing of them all.

The conceit is this: what if there were beings with god-like powers that, in effect, could control the universe while simultaneously coexisting in it? Reynolds' character, known as 'G,' is one of these. He's a Nine, a name derived from his place of power. As McCarthy's first character, Margaret, explains it, if a true god is a ten on a one to ten scale, G is a nine. Davis also plays a Nine, presumably named 'S' (since, like Reynolds' character names all start with G, hers all start with S), hellbent on removing him from the worlds he has created and returning to a nonhuman existence. 'M,' McCarthy's character, is a human (a Seven; koalas are Eights, naturally) who exhibits Nine-like behaviors and is, in part, a personification of G's desire to stay in his created worlds.

The story takes place in three parts and three different universes. The first and second universes are actually somehow linked, while the third universe is actually a "real life" version of the television show prominently featured in the second universe.

(If you didn't notice earlier, SPOILER ALERT. It's about to get really spoilery.)

The first universe sees G's first alter ego, Gary, a popular television actor whose wife leaves him, get placed under house arrest after unintentionally burning down his own house while drunk. There's a certain level of eerieness to the whole affair, with notes that Gary didn't write but are somehow in his own handwriting showing up, barking coming from nowhere, and the protagonist seeing shadows of someone who looks suspiciously like himself.

He meets the next door neighbor, Sarah (Davis), who openly flirts with him and even gets him to break his order to be alone in the house, which leads to a ridiculous but awesome rendition of Peggy Lee's late '60s fatalistic tune "Is That All There Is?" as she seduces him. However, things don't end well, which leads Gary to go on a drunken escapade and run-in with Fanning's Noelle character, a mute who seemingly only talks in sign language, leads him to becoming roommates with Margaret, his PR handler.

Over time, after several references to the number nine, Gary grows suspicious of Margaret and almost takes Sarah's offer of help. Ultimately, Margaret explains to Gary what he is: a Nine, a semiultimate being with the power to "create a world on a whim." He learns that he is not one being, but several existing at the same time. In a fit of disbelief, he breaks his house arrest barrier and accidentally destroys the universe. (Which should make anyone on house arrest think twice about breaking it. I'm looking at you, Martha Stewart circa 2005.)

The second part, perhaps the best part, depicts Gavin (Reynolds again), a television writer, working on a pilot for a show called Knowing, something of a Lost-esque show. He casts Melissa McCarthy (played by, er, Melissa McCarthy) as the lead, which goes sour when she tests poorly. The studio executive, Susan (Davis), appears to be helping Gavin, but eventually, it is revealed that she has been trying to separate he and Melissa, just as Sarah was trying to separate Gary and Margaret.

It should be noted that this part also has a musical performance from McCarthy, singing the old Oliver! number "As Long As He Needs Me." Strangely enough, though The Nines isn't a musical, its two musical performances are highlights of the film. However, less should be said about this one than "Is That All There Is?" because McCarthy, really through no fault of her own, doesn't put in the emotion she should into this performance. August made a bad choice here: though McCarthy actually has a lovely voice and the song is a classic, it just doesn't fit the scene very well.

After a hostile showdown with Susan in a hotel lobby that even has a callback to "Is That All There Is?" Gavin storms out and begins to yell at the cameras following him around for a reality show based on the drama around making the pilot. However, as a woman we find to be more than familiar (she was in the first part as well) tells him, there are no cameras. He's been imagining them. Suddenly, sevens begin hovering above everyone around him, with a nine hovering above him. It is this that leads to the "game" being quit by an unknown gamer, which leads into the third universe.

In the final part, Gabriel (you guessed it, Reynolds) and his wife, Mary (McCarthy, naturally) are stranded with their daughter, Noelle, in the middle of the forest after their Prius' starter dies. (Environmentalism is fun, kiddies, until you're left stranded because your hybrid dies.) Mary stays with their mute daughter, Noelle (yes, the same Noelle from the other two parts), while Gabriel searches for help and runs into Sierra, Davis' final characterization and S' final incarnation.

This part is actually the pilot that was being filmed in the second part, which should throw the audience for even more psychological and metaphysical loops. How was G acting as Gabriel in the pilot while still being Gavin the writer? You could also ask how Gavin and Gary coexisted in the same house without ever seeing each other beyond a small shadow, after all. G's existence in all universes while none of the universes exist at once is only one of the huge obstacles facing anyone who wants to fully understand this wonderfully frustrating (or frustratingly wonderful?) film.

S stages an intervention for G, spiking his water with GHB and attempting to get him to return to being a Nine and leave the human existence behind. After 90 versions of the universe and 4,000 years playing human, S makes his peace with M and decides to return to Nine-dom. He breaks the green yarn bracelet we saw G making in the first scene, and the universe melts away.

As a parting gift for M, G leaves her in the best of all possible worlds, with Noelle as her (non-mute) daughter, her real-life husband, Ben Falcone, who appeared in part two, married to her, and living in Gavin/Gabriel's home.

It's a movie you can't watch only once and will keep you guessing every time. One of my greatest questions, however, is this: who is the "good" guy and who is the "bad" guy? Obviously, M and S are supposed to be one or the other. Since 'G' would seem to signify God, you would have to imagine that 'M' and 'S' stand for similar titles. Would 'S' be Satan? Her behaviors would certainly lend themselves to being a dark figure, but as we find out at the end, she's actually trying to help G, not harm him. Would the 'S' be for Seraphim, then? And does that make M the evil one? Is her keeping G in his created universe an act of malice? Or is 'M' supposed to stand for Madonna? Or Mary? It's all so frustrating it can make your head spin.

I can't seem to talk about the film without talking in circles, so I'm really just going to stick to what I know best: the acting, the writing, and then a special note about Davis' musical performance.

The acting is equally matched, with Reynolds doing some of his best work. McCarthy brings a charm to every part she plays, but in the first part especially, she absolutely shines. Used to playing opposite quirky women (Lauren Graham's Lorelai Gilmore, Christina Applegate's Samantha Newly), McCarthy is a formidable opponent for Davis, standing by her man no matter what incarnation he's currently in. And Davis is a wonder in her three roles, bringing a power and ferocity to each that is almost undeniable.

The writing is very good. Amazingly so, actually, considering the difficult task of continually teasing the audience without revealing too much. It does leave several unanswered questions, and it feels somewhat as though August didn't check the parts against each other to make sure everything was explained. But that's just a byproduct of his ambition, as mentioned earlier, so it's forgivable.

A quick thought about "Is That All There Is?" There's no doubt the song is fatalistic (horrifyingly so), with lyrics like "I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was over, I said to myself, 'Is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is?'" So why does Sarah sing it to Gary? I think it's supposed to reflect her inhumanity and his as well. For them, there are no wonders in this world. They create the wonders. That boredom is what causes Gary to keep resetting and restarting the worlds. That's my best guess, anyway. It's an incredibly intriguing performance.

If you've gotten to this point in the blog post, chances are either A) you've seen The Nines, or B) you just had the entire movie spoiled for you. Don't let either situation stop you from watching it again. It's a fantastic movie that will keep you continually guessing until the end and long afterwards. In a world where copycat movies like "The Losers," "The A-Team," and "The Expendables," all of which are, um, the exact same film, dreck like "Killers," and endless sequels like the upcoming fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" can be made and everyone goes to see them, no questions asked, it's sad to see a movie like The Nines get ignored.


Simon said...

Dude, now I have to see it. Sounds trippy.

Anonymous said...

question: could the ”baby” belonging to S in part one be a universe that S herself created? Remember how she kept refering to the baby as ”boring”?

Anonymous said...

Never seen it but it sounds off. Just the little bit I read of your "dissertation" was not correct in the Biblical number usages and looking for nines is a waste of time unless you are looking for nines trying to start something. Call it a Forward Observer before the big boys come out. It's probably the google eyed kids in a few years we will have to worry about. You all have to sleep with them on all the ADD meds and things. Just waiting for the small stuff to sift out.

Jay Z. and not the rapper.

Christina Lamoureux said...

Good review. But you are way off basing in thinking Elle Fanning is a better actress. Just for starters she has no where close to the same body of work as her much more talented sister. She also doesn't come close to having the same resume as Dakota does. Take a long look at some of the talent she's worked with over the years.