Director/Screenplay – John August, Producers – Bruce Cohen, Dan Etheridge & Dan Jinks, Photography – Nancy Schreiber, Music – Alex Wurman, Music Supervisor – Julianne Jordan, Digital Visual Effects – Look Effects Inc (Supervisor – Max Ivins). Production Company – Jinks-Cohen Company/Confederated Products, LLC
Ryan Reynolds (Gary Banks/Gavin Taylor/Gabriel), Melissa McCarthy (Margaret/Melissa McCarthy/Mary), Hope Davis (Sarah/Susan Howard/Sierra), Elle Fanning (Noelle), Octavia Spencer (Streetwalker), Dahlia Salem (Herself), David Denman (Parole Officer/Agitated Man), Ben Falcone (Himself)
The Prisoner:- Gary Banks, the star of the hit tv series ‘Crime Lab’, goes on a bender after breaking up with his girlfriend. After setting their house on fire and getting wired on crack, he crashes his car in downtown Hollywood. He is bailed out of jail by the publicist Margaret and placed under house arrest. She sequesters him at the home of a writer client with orders not to leave. Bored, Gary soon befriends the flirtatious next-door neighbour Sarah. However, Gary also notices peculiar things – hearing noises of other people in the house and finding the recurrence of the number nine everywhere he looks. Sarah is also aware that Margaret is keeping the truth from Gary. Reality Television:- Gavin Taylor is a hot new television writer and has just shot a pilot called ‘Knowing’, starring his good friend Melissa McCarthy. As a reality tv camera crew follow him around, Gavin comes under increasing pressure from network executives to replace Melissa who has a low audience response in polls. Gavin must face the hard choice of whether to dump his good friend or keep the show on air. Knowing:- The videogame designer Gabriel is up in the hills with his wife Mary and daughter Noelle when their car stalls. Unable to get a phone signal, he sets out walking to find help. He comes across Sierra, who is also walking, but she is too suspicious of him to offer help. It also appears that Sierra is not who she seems to be.
John August may not yet be a household name but is one of the rapidly rising names in Hollywood screenwriting. August first premiered with the script for Doug Liman’s Go (1999) and then went onto write or co-write films like Charlie’s Angels (2000), Titan A.E. (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), before becoming a Tim Burton regular with the scripts for Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Dark Shadows (2012) and Frankenweenie (2012), as well as other works like Aladdin (2019). The Nines represented John August’s debut as a director, although he had previously made a short film God (1998), which visits similar themes to The Nines and also featured Melissa McCarthy.
The Nines is a genuine reality bender in the full sense of the meaning. John August ostensibly gives us three different stories. In each story, Ryan Reynolds plays a creative individual who constructs realities – a screenwriter, a videogame designer, an actor. In all the stories, he is surrounded by Melissa McCarthy who is seen as a comforting, helpful, motherly figure, while there is also the ambiguous presence of Hope Davis who always appears as a woman who is sneakily trying to keep Ryan Reynolds away from Melissa McCarthy. There is also the presence of the mute child played by Ellie Fanning.
In normal regards, this would simply make The Nines an anthology film or something akin to Magnolia (1999) or Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1992), which tell several different interwoven stories in one film. Perhaps a closer genre equivalent might be The Illustrated Man (1969), which told three different stories but had the parts in each played by the same actors. Another Robert Altman film that you could look to is Images (1972), which featured an ensemble cast but where the roles played by each actor kept blurring and shifting. Although more than anything what The Nines resembles is a less darker, less Lynchian version of the double story flip that we had in Mulholland Dr. (2001) where people enigmatically end up inhabiting different lives that seem to map back onto other parts of the story.
The first episode The Prisoner starts captivatingly with Ryan Reynolds on a bender, setting fire to various belongings on a barbecue, buying crack, picking up a hooker (Octavia Spencer) and then spending the night partying in a motel room, before the completely mind-bending moment when he wakes in the morning and calls for medical advice because he seems to have a belly button. We are not sure whether this is part of the drug hangover or the beginnings of some type of Philip K. Dick/M. Night Shyamalan-esque reality bender. This is followed by him crashing in downtown Hollywood (after seeing visions of his other selves in the back of his car).
The episode begins proper once Ryan Reynolds is confined to house arrest. Here the segment is stolen in large part by a fabulous performance from Melissa McCarthy who enters like a bulldozer with charm and keeps up a wonderful tirade of wryly sarcastic lines. (Indeed, Melissa McCarthy becomes the scene-stealer of the film and an actress that should have a much higher profile than she has to date. This came about a few years later with her breakout award-winning performance in Bridesmaids (2011) whereupon McCarthy was being repackaged as a new high-profile comedy name). At one point, she threatens Ryan Reynolds: “If you fuck up, I’m going to break your legs with a sledgehammer,” before giving a sweet smile.
The episode begins to get increasingly stranger. There is the introduction of Hope Davis, who would appear to be a bored housewife next door who begins a flirtatious relationship with Ryan Reynolds. There’s the bizarreness of the scene where she comes over for drinks and then abruptly breaks into song to accompany the cd he has put on and then continues to sing parts of the song in and out of the scene, frequently turning to address the camera. Ryan Reynolds keeps hearing mysterious noises from upstairs when the house should be deserted. There is a strange encounter with the seemingly mute Ellie Fanning who gives cryptic hand signals that he is unable to understand. The episode also turns into what starts to seem like a variant on The Number 23 (2007) with Reynolds finding that no matters how many times he rolls the dice on a backgammon board he always gets nines, that there are nines all over a page of newspaper ads, that the name of his tv series Crime Lab is rewritten as Crim9 Lab on a tv in the background and so on.
The episode ends with cryptic ambiguity. [PLOT SPOILERS]. Hope Davis hints that she knows that Melissa McCarthy is withholding the truth from Ryan Reynolds. In the final scene, he demands an explanation from McCarthy, whereupon she tells him that she has known him for 25 years (despite his having only met her at the police station). He asks what would happen if he stepped over the chalk line she has established as the boundary of his tracking device and she replies that she doesn’t know but it could be dire. He does, whereupon everything disappears in a flash of white light.
We then find ourselves in the second story Reality Television. Here Ryan Reynolds is a hotshot tv executive (who seems a dead ringer for J.J. Abrams) who is creating a pilot for his dream show. Here Melissa McCarthy is his best friend (an actress also named Melissa McCarthy) who he has cast as the lead in the pilot, before he comes under pressure from the network to dump her and recast the role because she is considered a ratings liability. While the previous episode was shot as a standard film, this is shot on handheld digital video where Reynolds is being filmed as part of a reality tv show.
There are a number of peculiar overlaps with the previous episode – we learn that Ryan Reynolds’ writer is the creator of Crime Lab, the tv series that the actor in the first episode appears in. He also lives in the house where the actor in the first episode goes to stay and leaves the note “Look for the Nines” that started the first story’s character off on his numerological obsession. What must be greatly commended about the episode is that there have been few other films (or documentaries for that matter) that have given such an accurate glimpse in on the process whereby a tv show is produced.
[PLOT SPOILERS]. This episode also arrives at a completely WTF ending. Throughout, the episode has wrapped us up in the mockumentary approach of a faux reality tv episode with people being interviewed and Ryan Reynolds’ writer frequently turning to the camera to gives his thoughts. Then comes the eminently mind-bending moment where the production has collapsed around him and Reynolds is on a street corner and angrily tells the camera crew following him to go away, that he doesn’t want to do this anymore before a woman turns and asks him who he is talking to, saying that there is nobody there. Then comes a flashback (shot in widescreen letterbox) to the first episode with Melissa McCarthy explaining to Ryan Reynolds that he is a godlike being who can create multiple realities and that he has incarnated several different versions of himself in each one.
We then segue into the third episode Knowing, which would seem to be the pilot that the writer in Reality Television is trying to produce. (With equally cryptic effect, Knowing was also the name of the disc that Ryan Reynolds put into the automated piano in the first episode, as well as appeared as an ad on the bus stop where he met that episode’s Ellie Fanning). The story expands outwards from the brief one scene glimpse we get of the tv pilot with Melissa McCarthy and daughter Ellie Fanning discovering something in the car. While walking to find help, Ryan Reynolds encounters this reality’s version of Hope Davis. However, as he tries to assure her that he is not a stalker, it becomes aware that she is actually following and stalking him.
[PLOT SPOILERS]. Then comes the reality bender of this episode where Leslie Hope reveals that she has come to perform an intervention on Ryan Reynolds because he is the godlike being who has become too wound up in the realities of his own creation. The episode ends with Reynolds tearing down this reality and a coda where he is now incarnated as Melissa McCarthy with a loving husband and Ellie Fanning as her/his daughter. The end revelation about what is going on is certainly strange. Your initial thought is that maybe it is the product of a writer that has maybe gotten too big a head – I mean, how else can you take a quasi-autobiographical work (see next paragraph) about a writer who discovers they are a godlike being? It is the sort of twist that were The Nines an M. Night Shyamalan film, which it very much is, would leave one not knowing whether to laugh or take it seriously and be groaning at the corniness. One does, but the film also proves oddly compelling.
The dvd extras that accompany The Nines prove most revealing. Interviewed, John August explains that the film is largely an autobiographical one and that the writer in the middle segment is essentially himself. He was regarded as a hit writer and created the tv series D.C. (2000) about the personal lives of a group of Washington D.C. professionals, which was pulled off the air after only seven episodes. In the interviews, August reveals that he suffered from a nervous breakdown during the making of the show, which he did not recognise at the time, and at one point thought that he was living inside the reality of the tv series.
The parallels between reality and the fiction do not end there. The house where the first episode takes place and where the writer in the second lives is August’s own house and he wrote the script specifically to take advantage of this as a location. Melissa McCarthy is a lifelong friend of John August in real life and plays the best friend of the writer character in the second episode under her own name. It is not known whether August came under pressure to recast Melissa McCarthy in D.C. but she did appear as a character in two episodes of the show. Equally, Dahlia Salem, the actress who is recast in Melissa McCarthy’s role in the tv show, plays herself and also had the female lead in Alaska (2003), another John August pilot that never went to series. Moreover, Ben Falcone, who plays Melissa McCarthy’s husband in the perfect reality that Ryan Reynolds creates at the end, is McCarthy’s husband in real life.
The other interesting thing about John August, which doesn’t come through in the film, is that he is gay in real life. (There are some intimations of that – the Ryan Reynolds in the second segment is clearly gay, while there is a scene cut from the first episode where Melissa McCarthy’s publicist goes into damage control mode after a tabloid reporter comes across Reynolds getting a blowjob from a pizza delivery boy). What then to make of the ending where Ryan Reynolds draws all the elements of the various realities together and coalesces them into one where he is a woman leading an idyllic married family life? Can the ultimate message of this quasi-autobiographical film be that of a gay man wishing most ardently to be able to have the perfect (heterosexual) nuclear family – and indeed one where he plays the role of the wife and mother? Who knows? The fascination of The Nines is that its subtly layered clues and games of autobiography and meta-fiction create an absorbing weave that leaves you puzzling over their meaning for days afterwards.
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Melissa McCarthy) at this site’s Best of 2007 Awards).