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film / tv / politics / web / celeb

September 4, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | September 4, 2007 |

There are various reasons a film might be released on the last weekend before the serious movie season starts, almost none of them good. The offal of late summer can be divided into several categories: Movies for Dumb Teenagers Before They Return to School, Movies That Are Excuses for Soundtracks, Movies That Rip Off Other Recent Bad Movies, Movies Directed by Rob Zombie. (Clearly, these categories can, and often do, overlap.) The best one can hope for in the season of our
cinematic discontent is Projects That Had Some Potential But Managed to Stink Anyway, of which The Nines is a perfect example. It’s an appropriate title for a movie that feels like at least nine different ones stitched together. If the best of the bunch — and search me for which one that might be — had somehow been surgically removed and kept intact, it could have been decent, but as is, this is a real mess.

Divided into three interrelated parts, The Nines features the same trio of actors (Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy) playing different roles in each mini-story. From the very beginning of the first episode, in which Reynolds plays Gary, a TV star who burns his ex-girlfriend’s belongings, goes on a crack bender, and ends up being sentenced to house arrest, the movie’s tone is all over the place. One moment, things have the sheen and rapid edits of a music video, the next they’re naturalistic and calm. Gary is tormented by an eerie voice on his phone that recalls the chilling start of Scream, shares sitcom-style banter with his publicist, Margaret (McCarthy), and shares a conversation with his next-door neighbor, Sarah (Davis), that she interrupts by breaking into song (the Peggy Lee classic “Is That All There Is?”) Versatility isn’t a crime, but the laughs, frights, and gimmicks in The Nines awkwardly tumble over each other, less like a symphony and more like a bunch of hyperactive kids who have gotten their mitts on the cookware.

In the second installment, Reynolds is Gavin, a TV writer finishing a pilot for a series that he hopes to place on a network’s final schedule, with the whole process being filmed by a reality TV crew. (Reality TV about the making of TV — this is one of many industry-focused jokes in The Nines. McCarthy plays herself in this middle story, for instance, and references the time she really spent on “Gilmore Girls”.) The movie’s title has a few meanings, but the most literal of them is explained when Davis, playing Susan, a network exec, pleads with Gavin to pay attention to the feedback of a test audience who ranked aspects of his show from 1 to 10. He initially scoffs at compromising for the masses, but listens more attentively when Susan advises him to totally ignore the 2’s and 3’s — they’re going to hate the show no matter what he changes. He should focus instead on the 9’s, those who clearly like the show but believe a change or two could perfect it. As in the opening third, there are hints (ranging from the subtle to the sledgehammered) that Gavin may be more supernatural presence than flesh and blood, but it’s this middle stretch that provides the most (and most sensible) pleasure, satirizing the TV business and establishing a more consistent mood.

In the finale, Reynolds is Gabriel, who gets stuck in a remote area with his wife and young child when their car’s battery dies. He leaves them behind and finds Sierra (Davis) wandering on a highway and asks for her help.

The Nines is the full-length directorial debut of writer John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels), who also penned it, and to this point it may sound like an enjoyable blend of structural and philosophical mind-twisters, but we haven’t gotten around to the overarching conceit, which is what downgrades it from noble failure to embarrassing nonsense. In its closing moments, the movie follows its pseudo-spiritual muse down the drain, revealing far too much and yet not nearly enough. There’s just enough style and brains on display throughout that August must believe his ending is a somewhat open-ended conversation starter, but despite its nondenominational ambiguity, it wears all the ontological sophistication of “Touched By an Angel.”

Reynolds, who still hasn’t managed to find a vehicle that makes the most of his playful charisma, is serviceable in a role silly enough that serviceable is probably the upper limit it allows. Davis does her usual strong work, and McCarthy is incredibly appealing, though for every good joke she gets to fire off, there’s a line of New Age-y dialogue that will make even the most slightly cynical viewer giggle. Word is that The Nines began as a project for TV, and that makes perfect sense — tightened up a bit and scrubbed of its most soft-headed ambitions, it could be a pleasing weekly diversion if you got it for free, but it tries too hard and has a world view much too goofy to earn its price of admission.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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The Nines / John Williams

Film | September 4, 2007 |

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