October 11, 2005
Nine Lives leaves you wanting more
Though the film doesn’t come together completely, the acting is marvelous
By David Germain
The anthology film is a delicate balance for a filmmaker and a tough sell for audiences used to a cohesive story and consistent characters to carry them from beginning to end.
Yet Rodrigo Garcia continues to specialize in piecemeal filmmaking, following his previous anthology films Ten Tiny Love Stories and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her with Nine Lives, essentially a medley of short films about women with a few recurring characters.
Like a solid collection of short stories, some of Garcia’s little dramas are riveting, some are explosive, some are merely intriguing, and they collectively add up to an emotional total somewhat less than their parts. A few of the vignettes pack a wallop. Others simply breeze by to little effect.
Garcia rounded up a huge, lustrous cast and accomplished an impressive feat of scheduling and camera choreography to shoot his nine stories in just 18 days — two days apiece, each segment captured in single takes lasting 10 to 14 minutes.
The stories in a nutshell:
Jail inmate Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo) walks a tightrope to fit in among other prisoners and a guard (Miguel Sandoval) with veto power over visits with her daughter.
Diana (Robin Wright Penn) is a pregnant wife whose placidity is shattered by a chance meeting with an old lover (Jason Isaacs) at a supermarket.
Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton) storms into her childhood home to confront her stepfather over the trauma he inflicted.
The seemingly happy relationship Sonia (Holly Hunter) has with her boyfriend (Stephen Dillane) turns sour after he discloses a painful secret to their friends.
Teenager Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) is an emotional tennis ball putting on a supportive front for her physically crippled father (Ian McShane) and psychologically crippled mother (Sissy Spacek).
Lorna (Amy Brenneman) finds herself a pariah at the funeral of her ex-husband’s wife, who committed suicide.
Missing romance at home with her crippled husband, Ruth (Spacek again) mulls a romantic fling with a garrulous suitor (Aidan Quinn).
Cancer victim Camille (Kathy Baker) rages to her husband (Joe Mantegna) about the breakdown of her body as she prepares for breast-removal surgery.
Maggie (Glenn Close) and daughter Maria (Dakota Fanning) share a wistful graveside picnic.
Rounding out the cast are Molly Parker, William Fichtner, Mary Kay Place and Sydney Tamiia Poitier.
The performances are remarkable, the actors clearly reveling in the theatrical flourish of shooting their scenes in one continuous take. While the women — notably the subtle Spacek and Seyfried and the combustible Hamilton — dominate, the men provide tremendous support, especially Quinn in an uncharacteristically open and accessible turn.
The actors perform a skillful dance to stay ahead of the camera, which follows them down hallways, up elevators, outdoors and back inside, all this motion fluid and graceful.
Characters recurring from one vignette to another sometimes become a distraction, leaving viewers to grasp for links between the scenarios that are not there. In a couple of instances, notably Spacek’s reappearance, the backstory examined in her first scene greatly illuminates the dilemma and decisions her character makes in the second.
It’s both a blessing and a curse that Garcia, the son of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, manages to pack so much into these portraits. You quickly become invested in the characters, but then are yanked away and hurled into another situation without time to digest the previous one.
Each component of Nine Lives generally leaves you wanting more. That’s usually a positive result on a full-length film to keep audiences talking and thinking long after they have left the theater.
With Nine Lives, it becomes taxing at times, slipping into the groove of one woman’s story only to have it abruptly dropped for the next. The stories are sketches, often without resolution, and while individual segments succeed admirably, taken together the portraits are a fitful match.