Screenwriter John August is perhaps best known for his work with Tim Burton on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as Go and erm…Charlies Angels. In 2007 August debuted his first directorial effort at the Sundance film festival. The Nines stars Ryan Reynolds as three different men and also features Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis as recurring characters in each scenario. On the surface it would be easy to dismiss this as an exercise in pretension but there is much more going on below the surface. I have actually found this film to be something of a comforting spiritual journey and approached with an open mind it’s a very moving experience.
Our first scene shows Ryan Reynolds against a white background, tying something around his wrist, a scene that seemingly means nothing but will come to be very important later on. We then find Reynolds playing an actor named Garry who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and proceeds to indulge in a drink and drugs binge. Whilst coming down he finds that he has no belly button and when driving himself to the hospital he crashes and ends up in jail. Sometime later he is on house arrest and finds a bubbly woman enter his life (played by Melissa McCarthy) whom he bonds with. He also starts to find the number 9 appearing everywhere he turns and becomes the object of affection for his next door neighbour who seems to have an ulterior motive. This story reaches a conclusion giving you just as much information as you need before moving on to the next one.
The next story features Reynolds again as a TV show runner called Gavin desperate to get his show “Knowing” on the air. Gavin’s best friend is actually Melissa McCarthy (playing herself here) whom he wrote the main part of his show for and who he is adamant on keeping in the show. Things get complicated when a TV exec (Hope Davis) clashes with Gavin over the direction of the show. This segment again reveals just enough information to keep you on board and is perhaps the most personal section. In real life John August and Melissa McCarthy are good friends and the battles that Gavin has with the money people feel like very real conflicts we hear about on the internet all the time and must be something that August has faced in the past as a writer.
The final section has Reynolds play a husband and father named Gabriel who is married to McCarthy and whom is the creator of a massively popular online game. When their car breaks down in the wilderness, he journeys up the road and encounters a hitchhiker played by Hope Davis who he asks for help. This is where the secret is finally revealed…
The first thing that hits you about The Nines is the revelatory performance of Ryan Reynolds. Up until this point and perhaps even now, Reynolds is best known as a pretty boy who is quite good at delivering a one liner. Here August gives him three very different roles and he rises to the challenge and pulls off the performance of his career. The second section in particular reveals depths to the actor that nobody thought possible. Due to the films relative underperformance financially, Reynolds has never taken this level of risk since and Hollywood keeps shoving him into the lead of underdeveloped blockbusters every year.
Personally I love films about religion even though I don’t consider myself particularly religious. The Nines is an expertly crafted spiritual journey into mystery that will confound and astound. Although working with a very low-budget, the ending with its low-key special effects and a pretty huge pay off somehow works wonderfully and will bring a tear to the eye of even the biggest sceptic. With it’s very deliberate three act and three-story structure, August crafts a tapestry of surreal and compelling characters and each act bleeds into the next just enough so that you never feel alienated or left out in the cold by what you are watching.
The story delves into the nature of creation, imagination and ownership and asks some pretty huge questions about the responsibility of the creator not just to his creations but also to those that love and care for them. Essentially The Nines boils down to a wonderful message about the nature of addiction and finding your higher self, something they teach you in twelve step programs all the time. For that reason I would put The Nines up there with the most comforting films of modern times, right alongside Life of Pi, Jerry Maguire and Forrest Gump.
Sadly The Nines happened to come out in that transition period late last decade between independent features routinely being snapped up by studios and the rise of video on demand. It got a very low-key release despite the presence of Reynolds and McCarthy who was four years off Bridesmaids still. It’s likely that any studio considering a swoop in and purchase simply didn’t know what to do with it. The Nines is so personal and so low key that it is simply very difficult to market. As a result the film has faded into obscurity in the last few years and shouldn’t be so easily forgotten.