The Reeler

Reviews

August 31, 2007

The Nines

August's metaphor-happy allegory for the writer's plight blows everything but your mind

Vague spoilers within, but the movie only has its twists to offer -- I've tried to keep them basically intact.

A late-night stoner conversation that has inexplicably bypassed the dorm room and headed straight into theaters, The Nines offers up one of the most incompetent would-be mindfucks in a time already saturated with aspiring Memento's. The reasons are manifold, but the irreparable error is in the foundation; everything else just hurts all the more.

In his directorial debut, go-to Hollywood scribe John August (Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish) attempts a metaphor that enters metaphysical terrain. The idea of the author as benevolent/tyrannical creator of the universe is the kind of cute concept no one but supremely egotistical writers take seriously. August takes it more literally than taste or sense dictate, and the metaphor snaps back on him: instead of seeming to open up more possibilities for discussion, it points out what a stupid idea it is in the first place.

August's knack for snappy dialogue and unexpectedly seductive direction makes The Nines initially seem like it might transcend its own premise and structure -- three short films whose narrative boundaries increasingly blur and overlap, with the hope of generating productive ambiguity. Things kick off promisingly with "Part One: The Prisoner," the Robert Downey Jr.-esque story of an actor named Gary (Ryan Reynolds #1). Gary is the star of a thinly-veiled “CSI” spoof called "Crime Lab," which makes it extra-special ironic when real, deviant Gary pulls over to the side of the street and asks the first minorities he sees if they sell crack. Bad meltdown shit happens, and Gary ends up in house arrest for six weeks under the watchful eye of PR rehab specialist Margaret (Melissa McCarthy).

The house isn't his, and soon Gary is freaking. "I think the house is haunted," he announces. "There's a zeitgeist or something." And with that goes the last enjoyable, non-pointed piece of dialogue in the movie. Thereafter, every other line includes impatient allusions to the nature of reality, life and other concepts that are supposed to possess built-in, existential heft. "Life should have a reset button," Gavin (Ryan Reynolds #2) the screenwriter/avid-video-gamer announces in "Part Two: Reality." So should this movie.

"Part Two" is the conceptual key to The Nines, an agonized autobiographical apologia from August stemming from a never-picked-up WB show (D.C.) he worked on in 2000. It seems that August feels a responsibility to his unborn characters -- how could he let them linger on the page when they needed to be brought to life? He replays the crisis via an admittedly thinly veiled version of his past self, with Gavin as a writer who persuades his actress pal Melissa McCarthy (now as herself) to ditch her role on Gilmore Girls to star in his show, only to have it fall through. It's a lot of angst and meta-trickery to summon up over D.C., reportedly the 90210 of political dramas. August wants to use the role of a writer as a metaphor for larger issues of creation and existence; instead, he only reflects on his own solipsism.

Another exacerbating error was choosing Ryan Reynolds -- Van Wilder himself! -- for the actor's exercise of playing three different characters who are (maybe? not really?) all the same person. It's a stunt of Peter Sellers (or at least Eddie Murphy) proportions; getting Reynolds to do it is like getting the line cook at TGI Friday's to grill steaks for a diplomatic gathering. Its not that he's terrible, just underwhelming, no more convincing or interesting in one segment’s incarnation than another. McCarthy
outdoes him easily -- and, surprisingly enough, trumps Hope Davis, who plays her
nemesis and foil in all three stories.

August is a talented writer, and he's not bad behind the camera either (The Nines is his first feature; a short, baldly titled God, appeared in 1998). Even when it's thematically inane, The Nines moves through three stylistically distinct segments deftly enough, handling with equanimity the haunted-house shenanigans of the first third and the reality-TV satire of the second. It's in the final third that things really fall apart: August attempts to explode conventional narrative, challenging every preconceived notion you've had about reality. All he really does is drag us into the creative angst of the dude responsible for writing that terrible Charlie And The Chocolate Factory remake, without giving us a reason to care.


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