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The Nines

James August's The Nines peels back the carapace of celebrity a bit to give us mortals an idea of what it is like to live in the numinous hub of Hollywood. Not the pleasures and the perks so much as the anxieties of identity. Writers create characters, who are then embodied by actors under the direction of filmmakers. Everyone is creating imaginary worlds. What if the ability to distinguish the real from the imaginary were to disappear?

The movie begins almost surreptitiously. A handsome young man fills an outdoor grill with stuffed animals and pyjamas, presumably a woman's, douses it with lighter fluid, and tosses in a lighted match. Before the match reaches the grill, the scene shifts to a street outside a liquor store, where the young man is sitting in his car drinking whisky. An ad on a passing bus establishes him as a TV star. Pretty soon, he is bouncing on a mattress with a hefty black woman, the two of them having just taken crack. Dismayed to find that he no longer has a belly button, our hero decides to drive himself to the hospital. On the way, he's amused when two friends appear out of nowhere in the back seat of his car. My, but they're familiar. Then we realize that the vehicle is upside-down on the pavement.

Sic transit. This is the elegantly compact opening to "The Prisoner," the first of the film's three vignettes. It is assumed that the audience has some tabloid experience of celebrity self-destruction. In case it doesn't, a publicist called Margaret (Melissa McCarthy) explains everything to Gary (Ryan Reynolds), the young actor who has just been placed under house arrest. It's not his house, but the well-upholstered home of a television director who is off filming a pilot.

At first, Gary leads a boring, "ordinary" life, with plenty of take-out and TV porn, but he soon has reason to fear that the house is haunted. He is also tantalized by his neighbor, Sarah, a matron who seems intent on getting him into bed - or so he thinks. Sarah is a little spookier every time she shows up. She wants to talk about "the nines," but she won't explain. Spooked, Gary runs off into the night, breaking the terms of his house arrest. Sitting at a bus stop, he is haunted by the apparition of a little girl (Elle Fanning) who tries to communicate with him by sign language. When she disappears, we see an ad in the bus shelter with her face on it, over the title "Knowing."

As Gary's life continues to wrinkle puzzlingly, Mr Reynolds prepares for the second part of the film by playing the shallow, somewhat dim Gary just as Gary would, like an overgrown boy who knows how to work a beautiful smile. Mr August toys with our expectations so severely that it is only the knowledge that Hope Davis has yet to play in a B-grade slasher film that keeps our eye on the film-maker's ball. Just when we might be about to lose patience, he wraps up "The Prisoner" with a bang and launches "Reality Television."

"Reality Television" is a mock-documentary about the filming of a TV show. It begins with Gavin (Mr Reynolds) - the director whose house Gary was using - pitching his project with the help of a supportive network executive, Susan (Ms Davis). Gavin is as unlike Gary as it's possible to be. He's prickly and brainy, and sexually ambiguous to boot. This is a part that Mr Reynolds must have been praying to play, and he pours himself into it. Where Gary was somewhat empty, Gavin is loaded, with ambition, dreams, characters, projects, and immense pride. Without any visible disfigurement, Mr Reynolds hides his good looks in the plain sight of Gavin's neuroses. I couldn't get over how good his performance was, or how completely it refreshed the familiar tale of Hollywood betrayal.

This third of the movie is shot relatively straight, with few surreal elements until the very last minute, when we are given to wonder if the documentary crew weren't a figment of Gavin's imagination. The final third, "Knowing," begins with a very corny setup, as Gabriel (Mr Reynolds), his wife Mary (Ms McCarthy), and their daughter, Noelle (Ms Fanning) return to their car from a hike to discover that the battery is dead and that they're too boxed in by a canyon to pick up cellphone connections. Gabriel decides to go off in search of help. The situation is remarkably reminiscent of the show that Gavin was pitching in "Reality Television," and when Gabriel runs into Sierra (Ms Davis), a mysterious woman also walking in the road who recognizes him as a famous video-game designer, we may notice that Mr August has drained his shots of as much color as he can without turning his picture black and white. The air is thick with meta.

Because I can take surrealism on its own terms, I don't expect surreal movies to resolve themselves into airtight, surrealism-denying explanations at the end. For that reason, I'm not going to complain, as at least one critic did, that The Nines finally collapses under its own weight. Because it doesn't. I think it's enough to learn that, on some level that is inaccessible to ordinary consciousness, the characters played by Ms Davis and Ms McCarthy have been fighting for the presence, if not the soul, of Mr Reynolds's characters. What powers the women might represent does not concern me very much. I found Mr Reynolds's reading of his final, somewhat apotheothetical scene perfectly satisfying.

For all its genre elements, The Nines is a sophisticated film. It's beautifully shot, and it allows itself to depend on the brilliant performances that Mr August has coaxed from his three principals. I can't wait to see it for that all-important second time. (September 2007)

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