If all this seems like a riddle to be solved, then it is one we’re repeatedly told the answer to from the beginning, but that answer is so outlandish, so extreme, so huge, that we struggle to accept it. The audience is Gary/Gavin/Gabriel – unwilling to face the obvious, instead looking for turgid alternate explanations over what is staring us in the face.
We are constantly told the truth. From subtle hints – Gary reads Voltaire’s Candide which is directly quoted by Sarah: “the best of all worlds” – to direct screams – David Denham’s irate test audience member shouting “it’s not real… you are trapped here with the rest of us brother”. Hallucinatory visions of G’s selves laughing with each other, effectively haunting himself through alternate worlds still don’t get the point across, so it takes Melissa McCarthy to cheerfully explain the facts of life inbetween parts two and three. Even then, the jaw-dropping audacity of it all takes a while to sink in.
The truth is seen as threatening. There is no villain here, just fear of knowledge. Pulling back the curtain ensures nothing will ever be the same again. G is happy to live a fantasy, but he’s an ostrich in denial and making him see the world clearly is all Hope Davis’ S wants.
Each chapter moves up the Hollywood hierarchy – actor, show runner, creative visionary – as the gaining of knowledge is another link in the creative pipeline. This is a writer’s movie; the joy of creation and the pain of letting your masterwork go is a metaphor for the artistic process. The writer instigates the work, but also gives it away, especially in Hollywood where others take all the credit. Although wittily edited, the movie eschews visual flashiness – the pyrotechnics come from the script.
Writer/director John August’s first screenplay was the terrific, multi-stranded Go (1999), kickstarting a successful writing career that includes five collaborations with Tim Burton, as well as being a best-selling children’s novelist with the Arlo Finch books. The Nines was an expansion of a short film he made with McCarthy – ‘God’ (1998); he loaded his one and only directorial work with a kitchen sink’s worth of metaphor, philosophy and Allenesque personal flourishes – openly gay, it isn’t much of a stretch to see him in Gavin, with a similar real-life bff relationship with McCarthy.
Casting is pitch perfect; the principals almost playing extensions of themselves – jobbing actors before the household name leap into big bucks. Reynolds’ natural affability brings empathy to variations on a spoilt man-child. We are as scared for him as he is, despite being an uber-god hiding under the covers when truth-thunder crashes. McCarthy is the best friend August wrote the role for; her persistent bubbliness provides not only the perfect shoulder for a gay guy to cry on, but also a friendly face for the best of humanity. Davis displays a cheery venality that makes us doubt her every move and motivation – even when doing the right thing, she’s the irritating mask of rationality no-one wants to wear.
It is fitting The Nines is so entwined with Hollywood, a town pock-marked with Scientology; a universe where beings are numbered, where the world really does revolve around you, the innocent-genius-man-child-god, is especially appealing to such an egocentric culture.
It’s a remarkably cheeky and audacious work – who couldn’t love a movie where koalas are graded above humans (“they’re telepathic, plus they control the weather”)? With an irrelevant take on the big questions, showing a devil-may-care approach to explanation, this refreshingly honest movie is surprisingly moving. Friendship really does trump egotism – wouldn’t you rather jump in a bouncy castle with your best friend than rule from a gilded throne?
Like all the best personal works it also asks us to put ourselves in the position of creator. Are you scared of the future? Of knowing what will happen next? Do we deny ourselves truth to live in the comfort blanket of fantasy? If we had unlimited power of creation at our interdimensional fingertips what kind of being would we be? A kind, loving God? A vengeful, spiteful UberAsshole? A spoilt man-child throwing his toys out the pram?
What kind of world would you create?