A bad movie is worst when you can sense the meaningful intentions of its creators. Such it is with Rodrigo García’s Nine Lives, the sins of which increase scene by scene to jaw-droppingly hysterical heights even as it solemnly professes to address and sum up the numerous trials of the human heart. The film’s first sequence forewarns of the idiocy to follow as Los Angeles County prison inmate Sandra (Elpidia Carillo) sniffs n’ shrieks her way into a frenzied display of mother-love because a defective phone is preventing her from speaking to her young daughter. It all plays as a peculiarly off-putting and histrionic sort of Hispanic mélo that would be out of place on even the most dreadful telenovela (terrible because of how damned inconsequential it all feels) and it’s made all the worse due to Nine Lives’ central conceit of showing nine uninterrupted moments in the lives of nine women via nine uninterrupted long takes.
Nine times three is 27, which is about the number of times I stooped my head in shame during this debacle. It takes a special kind of talent to waste a cast this diverse (the results suggest that few, if any of them, should try their hand at theater) and García has that talent in his blood. He’s the son of the great novelist Gabriel García Márquez and there are moments in Nine Lives, few and far between, that might have come from early drafts of Love in the Time of Cholera. Minor signs of improvement and purpose flicker like so many Platonic shadows through the film’s second and third sequences. In the former, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs play ex-lovers, now both remarried, who run into each other at a grocery store, the emotional high point coming when Isaacs impulsively kisses Penn’s pregnant belly. In the latter, a distraught Lisa Gay Hamilton comes home after a long absence to confront her deadbeat stepfather (Miguel Sandoval, who’s unfortunately forced to break the law of diminishing returns by revealing the film’s Short Cuts/Magnolia/Crash-inspired L.A. interconnection structure) and there’s an evocative passage, photographed in slight overexposure, where she regresses to a childlike state while running around the backyard.
But those warning bells go off again when one recognizes that the character’s sister is played—in a stroke of pious meta-pomo obviousness—by Sidney Poitier’s daughter, and by the time the scene climaxes with Hamilton fellating a gun that never goes off it’s clear we’re stuck on a quickly sinking ship of fools. From thereon any pleasure to be derived from Nine Lives is solely of the “how much worse can this thing get?” variety and I have to give the film credit…it really does get a whole lot worse. A scene in which creepy character actor du jour William Fichtner (playing deaf with subtitles, no less!) signs his desire to fuck ex-wife Amy Brenneman practically redefines the term “embarrassment of riches,” its high/low point coming when he offers to our lady of perpetual rom-com befuddlement that “I masturbate thinking about you.” (Uh…ewww!)
Sissy Spacek, meanwhile, revisits her pity-the-poor-suburbanite routine from the equally loathsome Carnivàle and there’s a clear sense in that series of the director’s aesthetic preparation for Nine Lives. One of my favorite televisual images ever is a García-directed single-take that unites Carnivàle’s miracle man Ben Hawkins, played by Nick Stahl, with two carnies against a stark, Midwestern salt-flats backdrop. It’s an overpoweringly emotional sequence that realizes the insane challenge of cinema to its practitioners (forever in pursuit of the great beast Existence) where every conceptual element falls miraculously into place—in spite of being manufactured, it feels captured, a Bazinian Holy Moment ensnared for posterity and eternal contemplation. The same cannot be said of any instant of Nine Lives.
Why the film fails so miserably is an interesting point to ponder and I feel tempted to trot out the old argument about the gulf that separates television from cinema narrative—certainly a tricky chasm to navigate, and increasingly so of late as TV and movies continue on a quickly converging collision course. Yet I think the central problem with Nine Lives stems from the very pronounced cultural divide that separates the writer-director’s personal intent from the film’s groupthink execution. The film’s executive producer is Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Amores Perros and 21 Grams, two movies of similarly conceptual tenor if distinctly different quality. Both of those films featured fractured narrative structures and a general dourness of tone that, nonetheless, played more convincingly in the Mexico-made Amores Perros than in the American-made 21 Grams. In Nine Lives, García is clearly influenced by his father’s tendency—one that certainly seems to weave its way through most Hispanic culture—toward magical realism and melodrama, yet it’s an inspiration that, in its final American execution, becomes ridiculous and risible. It’s probably too harsh an accusation to say that the writer-director is betraying his roots, though I think it’s telling that the Hispanic and black characters in Nine Lives are literally imprisoned or mentally unhinged, while the white characters have little to worry about beyond their bank accounts and libidos. It’s one example of the presumptive and superficial depiction of class and race interconnections in Nine Lives (a provable stereotype is still a stereotype), and it makes me wonder, finally, what it is about coming to America that muffles so many culturally diverse artistic voices to the point that they’re spouting platitudinous bullshit as gospel truth for the ages.