I am generally suspicious of "star-studded" casts; that five, ten, or even twenty actors would all agree to participate in an independent film speaks not so much to the quality of the project but the current vogue of Hollywood actors wanting to create for themselves "indie" cred. And TV cred. And stage cred. So on and so forth like little Mexican jumping beans they go, from one acting platform to the next, building the versatile resume of an A-grade 21st century star. But perhaps the star-studded cast is less for resume building and more for rubbing elbows between the established and the new, the young and the old, the Hollywood icon and the crossover hit. Or maybe everyone's just feeling sentimental.
Some combination of the above theories might explain the strange amalgamation that is Nine Lives, with tearjerker experts Glenn Close, Kathy Baker, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Holly Hunter, Robin Wright Penn, Amy Brennerman, and Dakota Fanning reading dutifully from a script that seems to have been drafted during an Oprah post-show party.
Nine Lives was conceived by writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, who envisioned "spending 10, 12, 14 minutes in the life of a woman" in nine successive continuous shots, each connected to the next--Robert Altman's Short Cuts for chicks. There's Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo), an incarcerated Mexican woman who mops floors and throws tantrums; Diana (Robin Wright Penn), a pregnant gal who runs into an ex at the local supermarket; Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton), a weepy mess who confronts her estranged father while holding a revolver; Sonia (Holly Hunter), who's boyfriend maliciously reveals, in casual company, that she had an abortion; Samantha (Amanda Seyfried), the cherished daughter of two needy parents; Lorna (Amy Brennerman), who has sex with her deaf ex-husband at his wife's funeral; Ruth (Sissy Spacek), Samantha's mother and almost-mistress to Aidan Quinn (playing the moony Henry); Camille (Kathy Baker), in the hospital for a mastectomy; and finally Maggie (Glenn Close), who, with her daughter Maria (Dakota Fanning), picnics at a cemetery. The connections are many--several characters appear in other character's vignettes, and the word "connection" is woven into the dialog of several plots in case you forget what the whole experiment's about.
The ultimate goal, I imagine, was to create a sense of intense voyeurism: the audience hidden in the floating cameras that tail each protagonist through their allotted space, never more than 15 feet away. But film's philosophy seems to be that since we're given the privilege of peering in on these slices of life, we're not supposed to otherwise enjoy them, as if that would ruin the everydayness of it all. These "everyday" scenes are hardly commonplace; they manage to feel lifeless anyway. Lines are delivered as if in a vacuum, they hang awkwardly in the air, or drop like rocks. Even Dakota Fanning, who often charms her way through so-so roles, falls victim to the dangerously tepid dialog.
Films about "women" are miserable things to watch. Why are we always weeping and looking forlorn, pensively chugging white wine while freaking out over breast cancer and abusive step-fathers? I refuse to accept that this is the sum of our existence, or anyone's existence-- don't we ever have any fun? Sandra's story is particularly excruciating. She accelerates from humdrum timidity to vicious, awful wailing when she can't speak to her daughter during visiting hours. I suppose we're meant to feel reverence for her capacity for rage in the face of injustice (the telephone in the visitor booth is broken), and to perhaps identify with her internal feminine power, yadda yadda yadda, but it comes off as a weakness in her character, and it's frighteningly annoying. Most of the other vignettes play similarly; only one life among the nine felt worth watching--Robin Wright Penn's Diana. Diana pushes her shopping cart through a grocery store, looking glazed until she comes runs into her ex, Damian (Jason Isaacs). The chemistry is immediate and intense; the anguish in their faces when they realize they both still love each other and yet can't have each other is terrible and true, and frankly, it's good enough to be drawn out into it's own film.
It seems Garcia was content to let the success of the film ride on the backs of his bold face names. With such quaint, dull dialog attached to so many scenes of forced inspiration, I can't think of any other explanation. Amy Brennerman's lusty encounter with her deaf ex-husband made me laugh. Glenn Close was better in 101 Dalmatians. Etcetera, etcetera. This is no powerful tribute to women, or dignity, or motherhood, or love, or anything; it's just another in a long line of films that perpetuate the maudlin interpretation of feminine roles. Mechanical weeping is boring in real life and it's boring here. I'd have more fun at a Tupperware party.