'The Nines': Higher Math, By Kurt Loder

Ryan Reynolds does a dazzling three-way turn in this brain-knotting metaphysical mystery.

This fascinating puzzle box of a movie is so clever it almost feels like a stunt — an attempt to keep so many balls in the air that you marvel at the filmmaker's technical facility. But the writer-director, John August, has more interesting things in mind, and as the story unfolds, they become disquietingly apparent.

The picture consists of three obliquely interrelated films, each featuring the same key actors: Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy and Elle Fanning. In the first film, Reynolds plays Gary, a hunky TV star having a nervous breakdown. Arrested after crashing his car during a booze-and-drug binge, he's sentenced to a stint of house arrest. His publicist (McCarthy) obtains the use of a very swank home for him to do his time in. The mysterious woman who lives next door (Davis) has a baby to tend ("I'm under house arrest, too," she says) and is clearly in search of diversion. Stopping by to visit, she starts coming on to him, but then the baby monitor she's brought along gives forth with sounds of infant squalling, and she leaves before things get too interesting. Wandering through the kitchen of the borrowed house afterwards, Gary discovers a puzzling note that says, "Find the nines." He shows it to his publicist, who points out, "It's in your handwriting."

Strange things begin to happen. Breaking house arrest (and setting off his ankle alarm), Gary flees to a nearby bus stop, where a little girl (Fanning) appears, mutely communicating in sign language. Gary doesn't understand whatever it is she's trying to tell him. When police arrive to take him back to the house, the little girl disappears. As the cops escort Gary away, we notice her face on a poster on the bus-shelter wall.

The second film has the form of a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a TV series. The show concerns a woman whose husband has disappeared and who thinks her young daughter, who's mute, is somehow the key to the mystery. The pilot has been shot, and the show's creator, Gavin (Reynolds), is now waiting for a green light from a network development executive named Susan (Davis). Gavin has given the lead role in his show to an old friend, Melissa (McCarthy); but the network wants someone younger and prettier in the part, and Gavin is told to let Melissa go. He reluctantly bows to this decree, and takes Melissa out to a Mexican restaurant to break the bad news. He's ridden with guilt, though. He longs for the moral simplicity of the video games he loves: "When you get stuck, you just hit reset. That's what life needs."

As the professional pressure mounts, Gavin starts coming apart. "I feel like I'm living inside this show," he tells Susan. He also thinks his house is haunted: "I actually ran into someone — I think it was me." Susan gives him the score sheets from a focus-group test of his pilot. She tells him to ignore the lowest scores, since they're probably from people who dislike everything, and the highest ones, too, for a similar reason. "Look for the nines," she tells him. Gary makes a note.

The third film tells the story Gavin was trying to turn into a show. It's about a video-game designer named Gabriel (Reynolds), who has taken his wife (McCarthy) and mute daughter (Fanning) on an outing deep in the woods. When their car battery dies, Gabriel sets off down a long road through the forest to find help. He encounters a woman (Davis) who recognizes him — from a video-game magazine, she says. After some initial suspicion, she agrees to help him and leads him off through the trees. She wonders, as they wander along, what it's like to be a game designer, a creator of worlds. Soon her conversation grows strange, though, and then menacing. Back at the car, Gabriel's wife asks her daughter if she'd like to go have Mexican food when daddy returns. The girl responds, "He's not coming back."

The movie keeps setting off little flares in your mind, and they provide a gathering illumination. Lines that pass at first with little apparent import — "There's something wrong with the world" or, "This is as real as anything can be" — take on a more unsettling resonance as we flash back on them. The picture is a metaphysical mystery that catches us off-guard at every turn. It's a creative triumph — small in scale, but rich in ideas — for first-time feature director August (a writer best-known for scripting several Tim Burton movies). And it's a quietly dazzling breakthrough for Ryan Reynolds, who has heretofore been indifferently utilized in movies like "Smokin' Aces" or consigned to elevating such schlock as "The Amityville Horror." Here he brings an effortlessly sexy glow to the role of Gary the actor and a tingling desperation to Gavin the writer; and in the end, as Gabriel, the creator of video-game worlds, he stands revealed as something completely unexpected.

Even the director doesn't claim that all the dots connect in this mesmerizing picture. ("The movie's not an answer," August says in the production notes. "It's a question.") But then trying to nail down all the loose ends afterward is part of its fascination. Give it a try. Look for the nines.

Be sure to read Kurt Loder's reviews of "Balls of Fury" and "Self-Medicated," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Nines."

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