What are The Nines? I have no idea, but I think The Eights are koala bears. That's about as close as you'll get to answers in this film, screenwriter John August's directorial debut, but don't let that deter you -- this is one of the most fun, most brain-twistingly clever films of the year. It's at once a serious meditation on the responsibilities of creators, a light-hearted poke at people in the entertainment industry who apply life-or-death stakes to everything that happens to them, and a metaphysical meditation on exactly what constitutes reality. Is television reality? The characters certainly seem to think so. Who are we to tell them they aren't real? And what about our creator? Do we have one? If so, what would that creator think about what we're up to, and how would they go about inserting themselves into the everyday world to get a closer look? What guise would they use? The Nines is a movie that raises about six million major, thought-provoking questions but then holds back on answering most of them.
The film is structured as a three-part anthology, with three actors -- Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, and Hope Davis -- playing different characters in each part. Part 1 has Reynolds playing a capricious Hollywood actor who totals his car and ends up being put under house arrest in his gigantic Hollywood home -- some punishment, right? Going stir-crazy under the watchful eye of his ultra-chipper publicist, played by McCarthy, Reynolds' character becomes enamored with a sultry next-door neighbor, played by Davis, and starts to challenge his house arrest. Part 2 is a more autobiographical section, with Reynolds playing a television executive fighting to keep his pet project in development while also submitting to the demands of a Project Greenlight-style reality show, starring him. Davis plays a cold-hearted network executive in this piece, while McCarthy plays a thinly-disguised version of herself, acting out a version of her own past experiences with August. Part 3 is a self-contained story, starring Reynolds and McCarthy as a couple with a child, lost in the woods -- Davis plays a mysterious jogger. Still with me?
It may sound complicated, and as I've said, the answers are few and far between, but the joy of The Nines is in the streamlined, economical complexity of the writing -- each moment seems to push the story along while also laying the groundwork for some overarching story that we can't quite put together yet. Why is the number nine suddenly popping up in everyday life? Why are certain characters trying very hard to steer other characters into certain decisions? Are they really who they say they are? Is there a monumental struggle between good and evil going on here? Is this movie about the end of the world? Is reality collapsing in on itself? I thought I had it licked by the end of Part 1 -- that after the car wreck, Reynolds' character had been transported to some kind of Club Med version of hell -- but it turned out I was off the mark. Then I came up with another theory about halfway through Part 2, but I was wrong once again, so at that point I let the movie take over.
Of the film's three parts, the most fun by far is Part 2, with its comedic take on the faux-seriousness of the television business. Reynolds is Gavin, a producer whose new show is almost ready for air, except for one problem -- the suits want to replace Melissa McCarthy as the lead. She doesn't look the part, and they have a replacement lined up and ready. All Gavin has to do is sign off on the decision, and he'll have that rarest of things -- a television show that actually makes it onto the air. Does he betray his long-time friend and put his career first, or does he hold his ground and hope that the brass will change their minds at the last possible moment and allow the show to go forward with Melissa in the lead? The fascinating thing about all of this is that it's more or less autobiographical, charting an alternative version of the real relationship between director August and McCarthy. In fact, the dialogue cuts so close to the bone that you might intuit that authenticity.
I hope I haven't made The Nines sound insular or too inside baseball -- you don't need to know anything about John August or his own personal history in order to enjoy it. All you need to get a kick out of the film is an appreciation for complex, puzzle-piece stories of the Christopher Nolan and Richard Kelly variety, a basic understanding of the absurdities of today's entertainment industry and an open mind. (And it would help if you enjoy watching the principal actors, since this is completely a three-person ensemble piece, but that shouldn't be a tall order -- everyone at least likes Hope Davis, right?) The Nines is a mysterious little honeycomb of a film that's so brimming with mind-bending developments and significant throwaway moments and portentous happenings that you might even need to see it two or three times in order to get a good understanding of it. In fact, since I've only seen it once, I need to get back to the theater as soon as possible -- I still have some questions that need answering.