Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia appears to feel if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sticking to the successful formula he used for his 2000 debut “Things You Can Tell by Looking at Her” and 2001 follow-up “Ten Tiny Love Stories,” Garcia in “Nine Lives” produces another femme-centric relationship drama that unfolds like a collection of short stories. Though the episodic structure results in a whole not quite equal to some of its parts, pic is an unusually tender, perceptive character study buoyed by stellar performances from a who’s who of talented (and many underused) actresses. The kind of serious-minded, low-concept drama that rarely has even one life in theaters, pic will find its most receptive audiences through cable and video.
“Nine Lives,” however, benefits greatly from being seen on a large screen. Working closely with ace Mexican cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet, Garcia has staged each of pic’s nine stories as a single continuous shot lasting from 10 to 14 minutes. And at a time when sloppy steadicam work is gratuitously overused in Hollywood movies, Garcia and Grobet employ the technology sparingly and thoughtfully, moving balletically with pic’s characters through the space of a given scene, but just as often coming to rest on an elegantly framed composition.
That rigorous visual design, however, never threatens to overwhelm “Nine Lives,” and it’s matched in its intensity by the continuity of performance demanded of Garcia’s actors — something closer to stage than film acting, and a challenge that nearly all of pic’s players meet formidably. Because there is no time compression in the film, viewers quickly become aware of just how unusual it is to experience 10-14 uninterrupted minutes of time in a movie, and how much Garcia’s cast seems to enjoy relaxing into their roles and their surroundings in a manner that most movies deny them.
In spite (or perhaps because) of pic’s fixed linearity, Garcia manages to make each of “Nine Lives'” tales a delicate inquiry into the nature of time itself. In one story, an unstable woman (Lisa Gay Hamilton), desperate to confront her father about unspeakable trespasses, steps into her childhood backyard and momentarily recaptures her lost innocence.
In another, a teenager’s (Amanda Seyfried) personal sacrifices to help her wheelchair-bound father (Ian McShane) become a touching portrait of the unexpected things that can suddenly upend families. And in what lingers as pic’s most haunting sequence, two old flames (Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs) reconnect amidst the aisles of a supermarket.
Garcia also finds room for a number of his “Things” actors: Elpidia Carrillo as a prison inmate eagerly awaiting a visit from her daughter; Kathy Baker as a cancer patient bravely going under the knife; Amy Brenneman as an ex-wife falling back in love with her ex-husband (an excellent William Fichtner) on the occasion of his second wife’s funeral; Holly Hunter as a woman verbally sparring with her indiscreet boyfriend (Stephen Dillane); and Glenn Close as a mother escorting her precocious young daughter (Dakota Fanning) on a visit to a family cemetery plot.
And as good as he is with his leading ladies, Garcia also draws rich performances from his gallery of supporting males — not least of all Aidan Quinn, who’s never seemed as loose and uninhibited in a movie as he does playing a lothario about (or maybe not) to embark on a motel-room fling with a married woman (Sissy Spacek).
“Nine Lives” is slow and methodical where most movies are fast and schematic. It’s simply about the rigors of the everyday. But unlike the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and (“Nine Lives” producer) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in Garcia’s films some stories intersect, others don’t, and the connections, when they do occur, feel organic and unhurried.
While Garcia, the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an impressive director, both visually and in terms of his affinity for actors, he’s also a gifted writer who peppers his naturalistic dialogue with flashes of understated poetry.