The Nines

And if the devil is six / Then god is seven / This monkey’s gone to heaven — The Pixies, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”

In the opening scene of The Nines, Gary (Ryan Reynolds) — a burnt-out TV actor — buys crack from some hoodlums hanging outside of an elementary school. Minutes later, he finds a prostitute on the street, holds up his new rock, and immediately asks “is this crack?”

Gary’s observational shortcomings show a man deluded by his own image, often finding release in his badass TV show, “Crimelab” (a blatant CSI knockoff) but never in his day-to-day surroundings. The notion of character-versus-creation is what ultimately serves as the basis of John August’s The Nines, a metaphysical thriller where three actors play three different characters in three different segments that gradually overlap each other, all while forcing us to question whether said characters are all that different from one another to begin with.

August is well-known as Tim Burton’s go-to screenwriter, having penned such hits as Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride. Yet nothing from those films could have hinted at his deeper intentions with The Nines. Despite playing three characters, Ryan Reynolds is still the focus, playing slight variations on the same basic concept of a human (which is also true of Hope Davis’ roles).

In the first part, titled “The Prisoner”, TV-star Gary — after flipping his car while on crack (guess it was the real thing, after all) — is put under house arrest. Yet the house is not his own: it’s that of pro-PR agent Margaret (Gilmore Girls‘ Melissa McCarthy). She has a bubbly, exciting personality that both annoys and delights Gary at the same time.

When by his lonesome, Gary bides his time by exploring the house, exploring himself (in many ways), and developing a peculiar aversion to socks. Yet it isn’t long before he meets Sarah (Davis), the devilish sexpot of a neighbor who has a sick child that we never see as well as the occasional habit of breaking the fourth wall in order to do a song-and-dance number.

That last sentence may come as a bit of a surprise, and it certainly is a surprise when that moment appears in the film itself. As The Nines progresses, the movie veers from sequences that are edited like a music video to erotic musical showstoppers (though best of all is when a child’s barnyard noises toy winds up being the basis of a top-notch horror-movie moment). In many ways, it feels as if the movie is still trying to figure out what it is within the first 30-minutes, but the haphazard nature of this sequence winds up serving as an echo for Gary’s own confusion about his own existence.

Though billed as a thriller, the movie doesn’t exactly probe the same sci-fi macabre territory that 2001’s Donnie Darko did. Instead, The Nines serves as more of a spiritual cousin to Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, another movie wherein we see the lines of reality and fiction blurred by having actors play both real people and imagined people (and, sometimes, even themselves).

All of this becomes more apparent when The Nines reaches its second part, “Reality Television”. Here we meet Gavin (Reynolds again), a character that’s nothing more than a fill-in for August himself. Gavin is a flamboyant, thoughtful writer who is on the verge of getting this new TV show off the ground, the crime-show thriller known as, well, “Knowing”.

While he’s working on this show, he’s also being filmed by the makers of a reality TV show called “Behind the Scenes”, which documents the ups and downs of getting a pilot from page to screen (the movie itself joins in during Episode Six: Post). Gavin already has “five seasons mapped out” in his mind, but the network is fighting Gavin’s only major casting request: that McCarthy play the lead. McCarthy’s bigger-than-average body type is proving to be hard for the network’s Drama Development VP, Susan (Davis, again). As Gavin’s dream of his pilot hitting the airwaves gradually crumbles around him, he, like Gary, is dealing with the strange sensation of not knowing what reality is, all while the cameras of his reality TV show seem more than happy to construct it for him.

As August explains in the commentary, the entirety of the “Reality Television” segment stems from his work on the short-lived TV show D.C. (which premiered just at the start of the new millennium), which also had McCarthy in is a small recurring role. He also had to deal with the network pressure of having to replace the lead actress in that show, and so — when films the eventual confrontation that Gavin has with Melissa — he does so with remarkable restraint, letting the moment occur naturally (thereby making it all the more devastating).

Though “Reality Television” winds up holding more dramatic ground than “The Prisoner”, it’s the odd, rug-pulled-out-from-under-you ending to the second segment that makes for an odd lead-in to the third, simply titled “Knowing”. This is the big-screen version of the show that Gavin was developing. In it, Mary’s car has — apparently — broken down, and her husband Gabriel (Reynolds), leaves to find help while Mary and daughter Noelle (Elle Fanning) remain behind. Gary eventually runs into a flower-child road traveler named Sierra (Davis), who is holding on to a dark secret.

The Nines is the kind of movie that warrants a second viewing, largely due to the overlap of its three segments. During Gary’s crack-aided joyride at the beginning of the movie, he at one point sees both Gavin and Gabriel in the backseat of his car, but thinks nothing of it, much as how Gary’s phone call to a hospital regarding his sudden discovery about his own lack of a belly button is never mentioned again. Gavin and Gary live in the same universe (as evidenced by one of Susan’s quips about not wanting “Knowing” to become just another “Crimelab” knockoff), yet the peculiar ending of the second part — via mouse clicks and Sims-styled graphics — resemble that of a video game, to which much is made of Reynolds’ part three character Gabriel, who is, in fact, a notable video game designer.

As you can no doubt tell, the question of what is “real” is brought up multiple times in the film, and we are never quite sure of how Gary influences Gavin, or if Gary — a creation of Gavin’s script — is, in fact, controlling Gavin. If you are reading this and have not seen the movie, then fear not: none of what you have read is a spoiler.

Though The Nines is most certainly a confused little movie, it also manages to be a very entertaining one. August’s straightforward direction is what propels the action forward, never giving away too much plot during any particular segment. Though all of the actors give reliably good performances (can Davis ever give a bad one?), two characters tend to resonate especially well.

McCarthy’s part one incarnation, Mary, could have been a one-dimensional showcase of sugary cuteness that manages to provide the audience with occasional witty jabs at Hollywood, but instead McCarthy finds the heart of her character right from the get-go, and then builds the slightly-manic, quick-witted Mary off of that strong base.

Yet it’s Reynolds — an actor who seems to be great at playing Ryan Reynolds in just about every movie he’s in — who absolutely stuns with his portrayal of Gavin. Reynolds plays gay without ever resorting to a lisp, limp wrist movement, or any of the other gay male stereotypes that so often find their way onto modern-day film stock. Gavin’s passion for his show overrides every other aspect of his life, almost as if the characters in his mind are more real than his flesh-and-blood friends (as August describes himself in one of the commentary tracks, “I’m a coward who always likes to hide behind other people’s decisions” — a moment that’s played out to perfection during the Gavin-Melissa confrontation).

With the lack of variance that is given to his part one and three incarnations, Reynolds’ Gavin performance is ultimately one of those great little roles that would get some awards season attention if it just so happened to be premiered in a slightly different context.

The DVD of The Nines is filled to the brim with special features, but only a few of them actually provide any real insight into August’s labyrinthine puzzle. The best bonus is the inclusion of August’s 1998 student film which is called, quite simply, God. It’s a humorous short that plays its concept well [a girl (McCarthy) gets regular phone-calls from God], but it also winds up providing great insight into the feature itself.

In the commentary for The Nines, August goes as far as to say that McCarthy’s part one character is actually the same character from God, except now she’s ten years older. We get to observe how August’s views on deities has gradually shifted from satirical to solemn, childish to churlish.

The deleted scenes appear to be deleted for good reasons (largely due to the needless repetition of information that we already know), though one scene involving a delivery boy (“Heteroflexible”) does give new insights into Gary’s “needs”, especially now that he’s cut off from the rest of the world with his court-ordered ankle bracelet. The two commentary tracks, however (one with Reynolds and the other with McCarthy and editor Douglas Crise), are more about the filmmaking techniques then they are philosophic quandaries. To lessen their impact, August winds up repeating a lot of the same information both times.

The Nines is a mystery, a puzzle of faith and devotion, and a brutal standoff for both creativity and creation. A single viewing may not provide all the answers, and, truth be told, there may not actually be any clear-cut answers that can be drawn. Yet this doesn’t prevent The Nines from working; in fact, its ambiguity is one of its best charms. Though August’s alter egos may be unsure of the world they inhabit, August has never shown more confidence in anything that he’s created. Given his resume, that’s really saying something.

RATING 7 / 10