If I were asked to describe Ryan Reynolds early in his career, during those heady days when Van Wilder and Waiting delighted people with low expectations and terrible taste, I would have used such adjectives as “smarmy,” “smirky,” “shallow,” “smug,” and “superficial.” And those are just the adjectives that begin with the letter “S.” Non S-words I would use to describe early Reynolds would include “glib,” “featherweight,” and “annoying.” He was like Dane Cook, his Waiting co-star, minus the jokes. Granted, that’s a marked improvement, but it’s still not much to build a lasting, substantive career upon.
Then again, Reynolds’ early roles didn’t give him a whole lot to work with. The “super-senior” he played in Van Wilder was memorable in the worst possible way; a frat boy icon that demanded an insufferable level of glibness, Reynolds was the jerky face of National Lampoon’s sad decline. In the years that followed, he starred in a number of movies that were noteworthy for their terribleness, like Just Friends, where his muscular physique was briefly encased in a disturbingly unconvincing fat suit that made him look like a young Jiminy Glick, or The Change-Up, where he and Jason Bateman switched bodies after urinating in the same fountain, a distasteful plot that is, surprisingly enough, 100 percent scientifically accurate.
Reynolds has also managed to star in four — count ’em, four — comic book adaptations that run the gamut from abysmal to almost passable: the staggeringly pointless The Green Lantern; the deeply underwhelming X-Men Origins: Wolverine; the critically savaged box office bomb R.I.P.D, which even Jeff Bridges’ deranged homage to Sam Elliott failed to save; and Blade: Trinity, which was notable mainly for Jessica Biel’s tight pants. Yet despite his aggressively undistinguished record as a superhero, people are nevertheless agog with anticipation over Reynolds’ upcoming turn as Deadpool in the vehicle of the same name, resurrecting a character he’s actually already played once, specifically in Wolverine, a deservedly unloved film.
“Reynolds delivers a revelatory triple performance… this is most assuredly not your typical Ryan Reynolds movie.”
What changed? In the past decade or so, Reynolds has quietly but unmistakably come into his own as an actor. A onetime male starlet people reluctantly tolerated because he was so damned pretty evolved into an actor of substance whose work people actively look forward to. Last year was a banner year for Reynolds as an actor. He gave a widely acclaimed performance in the gritty character study Mississippi Grind, and he was nothing short of fantastic in The Voices, a movie with an outrageous premise — a big-hearted but guileless factory worker accidentally becomes something of a mass murderer at the behest of his evil talking cat and in spite of the best efforts of his kindly talking dog — and an unlikely director (Marjane Satrapi, co-writer and co-director of the Academy Award-nominated Persepolis, an adaptation of her acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel) that sunk like a stone, or at the very least did not get the attention it merited.
Reynolds was the heart and soul of The Voices. If he had played the role with the glibness of his Van Wilder days, the film would have come off as a cheap joke, a sordid wallow in campy bad taste. Instead, Reynolds gave the character a poignant sincerity and deep-seated need to do good. He made the character — and the film — not only funny and dark but also oddly touching.
In The Voices, Reynolds played multiple roles: the protagonist, the voice of the cat that bedevils him, and the voice of the dog that functions as the canine angel on his shoulder, encouraging him to do good. It was an audacious, bold performance that recalled the first movie that made me think I had underestimated Reynolds, the unclassifiable 2007 science-fiction mindbender The Nines, in which Reynolds also played multiple roles.
The film marked the directorial debut of hotshot screenwriter and podcaster John August, who is best known for his many collaborations with Tim Burton, his much-buzzed-about script for Go, and big-money assignments like being one of the many, many scribes who contributed their sweat and blood to the Charlie’s Angels franchise. August is about as commercially successful as screenwriters get, but The Nines, which remains his sole feature-length effort behind the camera, is decidedly small and independent, a passion project modest in budget but rich with ambition and imagination.
Though August was an A-list, in-demand screenwriter at the time and Reynolds was well on his way to becoming a genuine movie star, neither of them could have anticipated the component of The Nines who would go on to enjoy the most success. It wouldn’t be the wildly successful screenwriter making his directorial debut or the rising star, but rather a character actress named Melissa McCarthy best known for her television work. Her size and gender would have seemingly doomed her to a career full of sassy supporting roles, because we live in a society and film world that is already screamingly sexist but even more unforgivably cruel to women who do not fit our narrow and often sadistic conception of beauty.
“McCarthy displays a gift for the snappy, machine-gun dialogue of a screwball heroine and a surprisingly potent chemistry with Reynolds.”
Yet McCarthy became a huge movie star all the same for reasons that are apparent here, even if her nuanced, deft, and diverse performances are a far cry from the ribald slapstick that would make her famous. August, a longtime friend of McCarthy’s, wrote three roles specifically for her, and though she has done fantastic work in movies like Bridesmaids, she has never had a role that showcased her gifts so adroitly. McCarthy doesn’t just get to be funny and quick-witted and feisty. She’s also sexy, gently intimidating, wry, wisecracking, trippy, angry, metaphysical, spacey, betrayed, and righteous in her rage and indignation. She pretty much runs through the entire spectrum of human emotions in a single film.
The same is true of Reynolds, who delivers a revelatory triple performance that opens with him playing Gary, the star of a CSI-like hit cop show who kicks off the action by setting his girlfriend’s things on fire and accidentally burning down his house in the process. In a manic frenzy of self-destruction, he swigs booze straight from the bottle before approaching a blonde-wigged prostitute played by future Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer and urgently inquiring, “Hey, do you sell crack?”
Audacious doesn’t begin to describe this opening. If nothing else, it indelibly establishes that this is most assuredly not your typical Ryan Reynolds movie. The actor’s rampage ends with him under house arrest, tended to by a publicist (McCarthy) who is gently terrifying, a hyper-competent, whip-smart show-business player who keeps her clients in check by delivering convincing threats with the sweetest of smiles.
This first segment (titled “Chapt9r On9: The Prison9r”) leaps ecstatically from genre to genre with delirious disregard for the rules. It establishes The Nines as an edgy, gonzo show-business satire; a semi-musical; a romantic comedy; a metaphysical drama; and a Pirandello-style exercise in blurring reality and fiction, where the characters seem to understand, if only intuitively, that they are mere players in a story someone else is telling. August, a screenwriter used to serving the vision of others, revels in the intoxicating freedom of having complete control. He is the God of his own strange world, and if he wants his trippy show-business satire to become a musical just long enough for Davis to talk-sing her way through the Lieber-Stoller standard “Is That All There Is,” then dammit, The Nines is going to be a musical for three-and-a-half minutes or so.
“The Prison9r” seems to take place equally in Hollywood, August’s fertile imagination, and The Twilight Zone. It begins at a manic, kinetic clip, with a dizzying flurry of misbehavior and clever, expertly delivered banter, particularly thanks to McCarthy, who displays a gift for the snappy, machine-gun dialogue of a screwball heroine and a surprisingly potent chemistry with Reynolds. Then, it all slows down and gets trippier, as Reynolds’ movie star becomes obsessed with the number nine and begins to suspect that his world isn’t at all what it appears to be, and that what he considers his identity may just be a role he’s playing, albeit in real life, instead of a TV show. That is, if such a thing as “real life” even exists at all in his world.
“August lets his muse run wild, and the result proves that he is a true auteur, as a director as well as a writer.”
In the second chapter, “R9ality T9l9vision”, Reynolds plays Gavin, a gay television showrunner and writer based on August himself — The Nines is so personal that part of it was even filmed at August’s own home — who is anxious about the premiere of a new drama he’s launching starring Melissa McCarthy as a version of herself. Gavin is at once the show’s God and a man who runs into the frustrating limits of his power at every turn, whether he’s spying on a focus group with entirely too much sway over the future and direction of the show or being bullied by executives who love McCarthy but force him to replace her with a more conventionally attractive actress, because, you know, television.
“R9ality T9l9vision” takes the form of a reality show chronicling the unsteady birth of a TV series but it’s also a meditation on the nature of creation. It depicts writers as infinitely powerful beings with the ability to create dazzling new worlds, people, and conflicts out of thin air but who are also at the mercy of executives and audiences and producers and directors and script-doctors. August certainly knows all about the power and powerlessness of writers firsthand. He knows what it’s like to have a script like Go make him the red-hot screenwriter of the moment and what it’s like to be one of scores of writers pounding out draft after draft of Charlie’s Angels.
The third and final segment, “Knowing,” again focuses on creators and creations and the slippery and elusive nature of identity and reality, this time through the story of video game creator and virtual world-builder Gabriel (Reynolds) whose car breaks down in a secluded area, leaving him, his wife (McCarthy), and his daughter (Elle Fanning) stranded. Gabriel asks for help from a mysterious woman played by Hope Davis, who doesn’t offer conventional assistance but does clue him in to the fundamental nature of his existence as someone who is not quite a god (God is 10 on a 1 to 10 scale); Gabriel’s number is, well, I suppose you can probably guess what his number is — here’s a hint: the film’s title — and he’s more powerful than koalas, who can control weather.
I should probably reiterate here that this is played largely straight. No matter how insane, surreal, trippy, and absurd The Nines gets, it is fundamentally sincere. It is a film of ideas and imagination that is self-indulgent in the best possible sense. No longer burdened with serving Tim Burton’s (or McG’s) vision, August lets his muse run wild, and the result proves that he is a true auteur, as a director as well as a writer. This film exists because of August, but if he’d experienced a moment of doubt late in the game and decided to delete the screenplay, then the whole weird, wonderful, eminently inviting, and re-visitable world he created here would cease to exist, or it would exist solely as a memory in his mind that could also disappear over time.
It remains to be seen whether playing yet another superhero in Deadpool will conclusively make Reynolds a mega-star, but The Nines proved, almost a decade ago, that he was absolutely brilliant at playing someone — or something — mysterious, unknowable yet unmistakably superhuman. The Nines isn’t perfect — no movie that takes this many crazy, inspired chances could be — but it’s pretty consistently brilliant. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would have to give it a 8.97.
Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 65 percent
Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin