So many films about contemporary angst and trauma -- Magnolia, 21 Grams, Short Cuts, Personal Velocity and now Nine Lives -- express our connected humanity in the most fractured way possible.
Like all of those films, Nine Lives tells its story in discrete parts -- nine that are 10-14 minutes long and each filmed in one continuous shot -- like separate chapters in Ye Olde Book of Life.
The film's slice-and-dice structure is part of the point. By separating stories into the film equivalent of chapters, we see both the isolation that divides these characters, as well as the commonality that lends a poetic quality to their experiences. We understand a sense that they -- and we -- are all in this living racket together.
Each section of the film centers on a moment in nine Los Angeles women's lives. And boy, do these women know how to live: fucking the grieving widower at his wife's funeral; contemplating adultery while enormously pregnant; or busting out in the kind of women's prison rages that take two guards to restrain.
All of the women are at a point in their lives defined by intense emotions due to unexpected romantic encounters, death, disease or the kind of choices that promise to dramatically impact their lives.
Any one of these women would make a tasty feature film specimen, but taken together, as Bette Davis would say, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night!"
Reminiscent of his critically lauded 2000 feature, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, director and writer Rodrigo García's Nine Lives is an all-you-can-eat actor buffet featuring a high-test cast including Robin Wright Penn, Glenn Close, Sissy Spacek, Aidan Quinn, Holly Hunter and Joe Mantegna. There should be a term for films this sodden with star power: Altmanophilic? Celeb-o-ramas? At a certain point, the many famous faces fail to deliver and just become distracting, like a wedding where the bodacious bridesmaids steal all of the bride's thunder.
Some of Garcia's writing is as heavy-handed as his casting. Many of the nine vignettes feel too weighty, too meticulously plotted and too self-aware in a way that might work on the page (García is, after all, the son of famed novelist Gabriel García Marquez) but feels strained on screen.
The episode titled "Samantha" (Amanda Seyfried), for instance, in which a beautiful, whip-smart teenager negotiates the heavy emotional danger zone between her mother (Sissy Spacek) and her disabled father (Ian McShane) is too stilted, too orchestrated, and overwhelms the vignette's slender timeframe.
Others stories are more satisfying and feel like eavesdropping on private domestic moments, as in "Camille," which references the frail Dumas heroine, and features Kathy Baker as a woman waiting to undergo a mastectomy. Camille is about to jump out of her skin with rage and fear, and takes out all of her agony on her bedraggled husband (Joe Mantegna). The vignette is an astoundingly complex glimpse at the spectrum of love, hate, rage and comfort that can define a marriage in times of stress and grief. It also shows García's significant powers as a writer.
The most effective vignettes tend to hint at larger, more complex backstories. They force you to speculate like you would about that mysterious neighbor across the street, or that glamorous person you see every week at the grocery store. All of the tales share certain themes: mortality, the profound love passed between children and parents, the desire for escape from family and home, or a desire for a retreat into it.
What works best in multinarrative films like Nine Lives is a tease, a taste, a sliver of these characters' reality rather than a whole drama's worth of content shoehorned in. The anthology film is a sketchy form almost always doomed to failure for breaking off far too much material than it can ever handle. Nine Lives is far from a failure, though it might have been a more satisfying film had it found a way to make the entire film live up to its greatest moments.
García's final vignette, which reiterates the idea of the bonds between mothers and their children, is one of the most memorable. "Maggie" features strong performances from Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning as a mother and daughter picnicking at a graveside. The mother is grounded, maternal and capable. The girl, however, is as light as air in the way of the young, a sprite who climbs trees and flits and moves like dandelion fluff caught on the wind. As that contrast between the mother and daughter plays out, the truly heart-wrenching distance between them is revealed.
Though Nine Lives' intent is not always clear and certain vignettes yield fewer rewards than others, the film ends on a transcendent high note, and gives a sense that in a reckoning of our own mortality and the short, precious time we have here, we are all truly connected.
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