'The Nines'

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"Creator" is a job description that gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood without much thought to its transcendental implications. But screenwriter John August ("Go" and "Big Fish") had plenty of time to ponder them during a highly creative nervous breakdown in 2000, after he was fired from a TV show he had created. The experience of being exiled from his own imaginary world (the show, "D.C.," continued for a while without him), left him dangling in a kind of limbo between his real life and his fictional one, and inspired the mysterious and often hilarious ontological freak-out that is "The Nines," his directorial debut.

A puzzle film in the vein of "Mulholland Drive," "The Nines" consists of three linked stories that exist in distinct but overlapping parallel universes, each challenging the other's claim to reality. The same actors -- Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy -- play different characters in each, although their roles serve similar functions. Reynolds is an actor in the first story, a screenwriter in the second and a TV character who is a famous video game designer in the third. Through each of these characters, questions of identity and existence, creation and control, reality and fantasy are attacked from almost every conceivable angle, spinning a grabby mystery that ultimately can't be solved.

Rather than come across as fantastic or dreamlike, the stories have a vivid, hyperreal quality to them. This is especially true of the first two, in which the main characters are so thoroughly integrated into the workings of Hollywood that their difficulty in distinguishing fact from fantasy is both an occupational hazard and a reflection of reality. Not only is spending a large part of one's life in a fantasy world a perfectly sane thing to do, it's also a result of success.

In the first story, called "The Prisoner," Reynolds plays the charming but feckless star of a TV cop drama who one morning impulsively barbecues his ex-girlfriend's left-behind possessions, then sets out in his car on a booze cruise of Sunset Boulevard. The bus that pulls up next to him with an ad for his show splashed across its side presents just the first of several identity conundrums (he's compelled to point out to some drug dealers that he only plays a cop on TV), which include hallucinatory glimpses of himself as the film's other characters in the back seat.

Gary's wild ride ends in house arrest, which he can't serve in his own home because he has accidentally burned it down. Installed by his handlers in the house of a successful screenwriter who is away shooting a pilot in Toronto, Gary finds himself subjected to all kinds of artificial measures designed to keep him rooted in place. Borders are drawn on the property, he must make daily voice-recognition phone calls to a computer, and, later, an electronic ankle shackle monitors not only his physical whereabouts but any attempt to escape the present circumstances via drugs or alcohol. As Margaret (McCarthy), a perky publicist assigned to act as his warden and baby-sitter, tries to keep Gary within bounds and Sarah (Hope Davis), a bored and flirtatious new mother next door, tempts him to cross the lines, Gary begins to hear noises and see things that lead him to suspect that reality is not what he thinks it is.

Of course, Gary is an actor and a troubled celebrity -- at work, he is who other people tell him to be, and in his personal life, the edges of his world are being constantly defined and policed by other people. By contrast, the main character of the second story ("Reality Television") is almost eerily in control. Gavin the screenwriter (also played by Reynolds) is a calm, self-possessed TV writer in the final stages of having his show, an open-ended mystery called "Knowing," picked up by a network. The development executive in charge, Susan (Davis), assures him it's a done deal, but soon Gavin starts to find that even as the show's creator, his powers are limited. Test audiences will have their say, and, ultimately, a shadowy network entertainment president will have the final word.

Meanwhile, Gavin has agreed to star in a reality TV show that documents the making of a network television drama. As Gavin and Susan butt heads and tensions mount, it begins to dawn on him that his crisis is making for better television than he himself will be allowed to create by the focus group-obsessed powers that be. Ironically, this sad fact is reflected in the third story ("Knowing"), in which Reynolds plays Gavin's character, Gabriel, a video game designer whose car breaks down in the woods while on a drive with his wife, Mary (McCarthy), and creepy mute daughter Noelle (Elle Fanning). Considering the mystery and tension that August builds up in the first two acts, the third one comes as a bit of a letdown. Redolent of the open-ended serial mystery currently in vogue, complete with a Fanning child in mind-reading mode, it recalls how Hollywood product is so often much less interesting than its producers.

Bright and vicious, desperate and cruel, the characters of the first two stories pop with a kind of nihilistic joie de vivre that makes you want to hug them and kill them at once. Reynolds shifts so easily from dumb TV star to slick producer to crunchy video game design god that he's hardly recognizable from one story to the next. McCarthy is especially affecting as a publicist whose harmless best friend demeanor masks a sinister amoral edge. And Davis is chilling as a formidable, craven development executive.

Like David Lynch's recent "Inland Empire," "The Nines" scurries down a labyrinth of rabbit holes, compounding the mystery to the point of no return, and never really comes back. Still, August never descends into the psychedelic mire of that movie, or of, say, the metaphysical bowl of oatmeal that was "The Fountain." On the contrary, it dispenses about a minor epiphany a minute and hooks you like a flounder. In the end, though, perhaps very much like a flounder, you're left flapping in the breeze with nothing more than a lure in your mouth, the painful realization there's always a bigger fish out there somewhere, pulling the strings and, for what it's worth, a deeper insight into the interconnectedness of it all. Which, on reflection, has got to be worth at least the price of admission.

carina.chocano@latimes.com

MPAA rating: R for language, some drug content and sexuality.Running time: 98 minutes. In wide release.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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