Nine Lives

Opens Fri., Oct. 28, at Harvard Exit.

Rodrigo García, the son of novelist Gabriel García Marquez, shows he's a chip off the old block when it comes to whipping up fascinating characters and highly charged slices of life. His movie comprising quickie scenes from nine separate lives is quite like a short-story collection of considerable polish.

Elpidia Carrillo starts things off with a bang as a prisoner whose smarts and cool make her a good candidate for survival—until a phone malfunctions during her daughter's once-a-month visit and her cool, and future, are truly blown. Robin Wright Penn tops her as a pregnant shopper whose heart practically beats its way out of her chest when she runs into her old boyfriend (Jason Isaacs) in a tony, Whole Foods–like grocery.

Lisa Gay Hamilton gives a sweaty, tweaky edge to the story of a troubled daughter who confronts her stepdad (Miguel Sandoval) over their family's dark past. He turns out to be one of the jailers in the first story. Holly Hunter and Stephen Dillane have a big fight in the fancy new home of their best friends (Molly Parker and Isaacs, again). I think Isaacs plays the same character he did in the Robin Wright Penn story, but the stories don't overtly intersect.

A breast cancer patient (Kathy Baker) proves that imminent surgery doesn't necessarily make you an easygoing person by berating her long-suffering husband (Joe Mantegna). Her anesthesiologist is Hamilton, who's as calm here as she was frantic in the story she starred in.

Sissy Spacek plays the wife of a chipper guy confined to a wheelchair (Ian McShane), who's lucky to have such a devoted and irresistible daughter (Amanda Seyfried), because in another story, Spacek's character has a low-rent romantic tryst with a magnetic stranger (Aidan Quinn).

In the finale, Glenn Close plays a woman whose daughter (the increasingly inevitable Dakota Fanning), still more adorable than McShane's daughter, likes to frolic at their halcyon picnic in a cemetery.

You never saw so many showy, affecting star turns in a movie, and each micro-movie is technically impressive because each is shot as one long take, a tracking shot fluid enough to make 360-degree-happy Brian De Palma look immobile.

But these short stories prove too short to pay off. Impressive one by one, they add up to less than their sum. They make us aware that the performers' considerable craft is unsupported by any actual literary structure—it's all an exercise. Their overlapping roles are supposed to knit things together, but there's no real meaning in the crossovers. García is great at sketching a character, evoking an emotion, making a moment vivid. Yet he can't make anything resonate beyond the moment; he does nothing to probe people's motives, the engine of fiction. His movie is a Steadicam tour de force with no real moral force. (R)

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