In the opening moments of John August
's The Nines, an actor (Ryan Reynolds
) drinks, drives, scores some crack, hangs out with a hooker, and totals his car. This series of events reverberates through the film, not so much in its literal consequences -- the story is told through three overlapping segments, only one of which features the actor character -- but rather the scene's jittery disorientation. Barely a moment goes by when someone onscreen isn't feeling confused or ill at ease. Following his accident, the actor is confined to a quiet house arrest, supervised by a cheery PR agent (Melissa McCarthy
) and eyed by a stay-at-home mom neighbor (Hope Davis
), but this mundane imprisonment starts to feel more like a sort of purgatory. Is it the drugs? The lack of drugs? Are the two seemingly benign women in his life actually part of something greater or more sinister?
We leave the scene before Reynolds finds definite answers, but the three primary actors recur in each of the subsequent sections, playing different characters. In Part II, Reynolds is a TV writer trying to cast his actress friend McCarthy (playing a version of herself, a popular supporting player on Gilmore Girls) in a new series over the objections of a network executive (Davis), who wants to hire an actress with a development deal (it goes almost without saying that said actress also happens to be skinnier and more generic, and is played by frequent network TV guest-star Dahlia Salem, and that the character's name is also Dahlia Salem). Later, in Part III, we see Reynolds and McCarthy as characters in that series, with Davis popping up in another vaguely antagonistic part. Article continues below
This may sound like an extended game of inside baseball, heavy on industry talk, with frustrations out of a poor man's Adaptation. In the middle segment, these suspicions are heightened by an overlong and overly familiar peek into pilot season madness -- formatted as an insider reality show, no less. That this conceit is only half convincing doesn't wind up mattering much; August is after something trickier and more elusive than jokes about callow execs and self-obsessed writers.
Revealing more about the film's metaphysical ideas would jostle the sure-handed unveiling of hints, details, and connecting threads. Suffice it to say that August eschews a single act of rug-pulling in favor of a "solution" that offers answers and new questions in tandem. It's like watching three interlocking Twilight Zone episodes, and at his best August conjures the mood of that show -- The Nines is realistically unnerving.
August has an eye for casting, too, helping an unusual triumvirate of actors find a lot of shades in their different-but-parallel roles. Ryan Reynolds turns out to be more empathetic as a flailing, disoriented screw-up than the wisecracking hero he plays in broad comedies, while Melissa McCarthy provides variations on an unconventional co-lead as the film comments upon her unconventionality. Hope Davis does play shrewish at one point, as is her specialty, but other segments find her exploring her range, dabbling in comedy and mystery. In Part I, she even gets to sing a little.
Of course, even a triple-decker Zone with more swears and a trippy musical interlude has a certain television-ready smallness, especially with designated episodes. The Nines reportedly began life as a TV project itself, and though its ambition as such would be admirable, the scale fits pretty well. The Nines is inarguably minor, a less inviting world than those August the screenwriter designed for Go and Big Fish, but August the director fits a lot of architecture into his tiny spaces.