John August’s “The Nines” plays like an all-grown-up version of August’s “Go” — another intertwined triptych of tales with characters and catchphrases overlapping from one to the next.
But it has more on its mind and in its ambitious sights than just exploring what happens when one decision leads to another leads to another leads to a fire in a Las Vegas hotel room and a shooting at a strip club.
The longtime writer (“Big Fish,” “Corpse Bride”) applies his vivid imagination as director for the first time, as well, and in the past decade it seems his interests have turned toward the spiritual. His characters are still hip and contemporary and witty and multilayered — but now, one of them also might be God. Well, maybe not THE God, but at least A god. Only he doesn’t know it yet.
Ryan Reynolds plays a different version of this figure in each segment (a distraught actor, a TV series creator who’s the focus of a reality program and finally a character in that TV series) and each allows him to display a range we never could have imagined from the sarcastic comic persona he’s honed in movies like “Waiting ...” and “Van Wilder.”
While the meaning and the ending of “The Nines” are wildly open for interpretation, Reynolds’ ability is a sure thing.
“The Nines” isn’t nearly as pretentious as the similarly structured “The Fountain,” the ponderous mess that came out last year from Darren Aronofsky, but it will leave you scratching your head at the metaphysical leaps it takes.
The film starts out strong, though, with the first part, “The Prisoner.” Reynolds plays Gary, the star of a TV cop show who torches his ex-girlfriend’s belongings in the backyard of his home above the Sunset Strip, then winds his way down the hill to get drunk, score some crack, get high with a prostitute and crash his car. (Though as his perky publicist points out, it was an environmentally friendly car.)
PR gal Margaret (“Gilmore Girls” actress Melissa McCarthy, who’s also in all three parts) arranges for Gary to spend time under house arrest at the home of a TV writer who’s off shooting in Canada. McCarthy, a longtime friend of August whose roles were written specifically for her, is a real firecracker here and enjoys some great, snappy banter with Reynolds, who’s always up for such a challenge.
While he’s trapped, Gary starts up a flirty friendship with next-door neighbor Sarah (the versatile Hope Davis, who also appears later on), a new mom who finds herself bored being tethered to the house by an infant. But Margaret doesn’t trust Sarah, and seems to know something about Gary that Gary doesn’t even know himself ...
On to part two, “Reality Television.” Reynolds is now playing Gavin, the TV writer whose house Gary was staying in during part one. August based the character on himself, inspired by his own frustrating experiences crafting a TV series; even Gavin’s Spanish-style house in the old-moneyed Hancock Park section of Los Angeles is August’s own home, just to toy with reality further.
Gavin is being followed by a camera crew for a show called “Behind the Screen,” which is documenting the process of getting his one-hour drama, “Knowing,” on the air. McCarthy returns as herself, the star of the series; Davis plays Susan, a tough network executive who’s supposed to be on Gavin’s side but might not be entirely trustworthy. Where Gary was cocky and off-kilter, Gavin is sensitive and introspective. But when his show’s viability appears to be in danger, Gavin starts to lose control ...
Which brings us to part three, the suspenseful “Knowing,” which seems to be the pilot for Gavin’s series (we saw snippets of it in part two). This time Reynolds is Gabriel, a video game designer who has taken a drive to the woods with his wife, Mary (McCarthy), and their mute daughter, Noelle (Elle Fanning, who popped up briefly in the previous segments).
When they return to their car, they find the battery is dead and their cell phones are out of range, prompting Gabriel to trek down the hill to find help. Instead he finds Sierra (Davis), a backpacker who reluctantly agrees to give him a ride but instead leads him toward a truth that ties together all the mysterious details that have been dropped along the way.
Confusing? Yes, and intentionally so. But it’s never boring.
And you at least have to give August credit for trying something different in an industry that far too often goes by the numbers.