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Nine Months

Review by Carrie Gorringe

   

Written and Directed by Chris Columbus

Starring Hugh Grant,
Julianne Moore, Tom Arnold,
Joan Cusack, Jeff Goldblum,
and Robin Williams.

Nine Months is the story of how a fun-loving, yupscale couple, Samuel and Rebecca (Grant and Moore), react when an unexpected pregnancy disrupts their plans after five years of cohabitation. He, a child psychologist who has finally established a thriving practice (and, as the joke goes, has no affinity for children whatsoever), crashes his Porsche in horror upon hearing the news and goes off on crying jags and general-level sulkfests with his single artist friend (Goldblum) who also has a tremendous fear of women who want children (he has just broken up with his own girlfriend for that very reason). She, a ballet teacher, can hear her biological clock ticking so loudly that it’s about to explode, and she is determined to keep the baby, even if it means leaving Sam in order to make this possible. Along the way, Sam and Rebecca meet the single person’s worst nightmare, a married couple (Arnold and Cusack) whose very behavior threatens to give fecundity a bad name. As a stereotypical example of baby-boomer parenting methods gone amuck, they are so obsessed with childbirth and the theoretical possibilities of child rearing that they fall short in terms of reality; their three daughters could be poster children for the Obnoxious Offspring Society. And, in the theory that more should be given to those who are at the limits of their abilities (the Peter Principle of Childrearing), she is pregnant again. Added into this mix is the bizarre behavior of Sam and Rebecca’s obstetrician (Robin Williams), a newly-licensed Russian emigre whose prior experience as a research scientist was concerned exclusively with the reproductive cycles of rats. His English also leaves much to be desired, as he happily greets Sam and Rebecca with the announcement that he is now a doctor of "obstruction," and the appointment goes downhill from there with hilarious results (watching Williams’ doctor attempt to operate the electric examination table with as much success as Wile E. Coyote ever had with anything from Acme Corp. is worth the price of admission alone).

And, of course, getting from ambiguous feelings about children and maturity to the delivery room is half the fun -- or, at least, it should be. One of Columbus’s major problems as a director (and this was also evident in his previous film, Mrs. Doubtfire) is his inability to make discrete segments of the film into a flawless whole. And, in Nine Months, some of these segments approach the comic sublime, mostly because Columbus has sufficient comic sensibility to coax great performances from his actors: Grant has parlayed his success in Three Weddings into another really elegant comic performance -- watch, for example, the subtle play of increasing degrees of terror across his face as he realizes that his rollerblading lesson is about to go horribly wrong. But Columbus’s skills really desert him in the "transition" scenes, those in which the characters undergo personal change, and the narrative is thereby driven forward to the next comedic segment. Columbus treats them like throwaway bits; by imbuing them at times with too much sentimentality, he seems determined to make the members of the audience feel the significance of these emotional discoveries until it kills them, and this didactic approach destroys the film’s overall tone. As a comparison, one could look at the work of another writer-director, Preston Sturges, director of classics like Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero. Sturges was one of the masters of combining slapstick satire that verged on the anarchic with sentimentality. The difference between the styles of Sturges and Columbus lies in the fact that Sturges possessed a clear understanding of the ambiguities of human nature and was not afraid to make them part of his characterization. The net result was that even though Sturges had to make concessions to sentimentality (courtesy of the demands of the Production Code during the 1940s), he steadfastly refused to wallow in it for any length of time. Consequently, the satire in a Sturges film was and is superior to its sentimental aspects. Moreover, because of their unabashed ambiguities, his characters felt "real" to the audience, and its members thus had an emotional stake in caring about whether a film director "found himself " (Sullivan’s Travels) or what would happen to an enlisted man, discharged because of hay fever, but mistakenly thought by his hometown to be a war hero (Hail the Conquering Hero). By contrast, as a writer-director, Columbus seems unsure of himself; not only does he not resist the urge to indulge himself in sentimentality, but the sentiments conveyed are mostly vapid. One example in particular is especially grating: it occurs when the artist, attempting to convey a spiritual side of himself to Sam, explains that having children is good because doing so negates the fear of dying alone. The explanation sounds inconsistent with what we know about the character (he hates children), and thus seems like nothing more than a sop to the presumed sensibilities of the audience. Furthermore, it seems unrealistic that Sam would accept, without debate, this psychobabble as conclusive fact; he is, after all, a psychologist (maybe Columbus is making a satirical point concerning the prevalence of simplistic thinking in all levels of society, but somehow I doubt it). In any case, one can literally hear the narrative gears grinding under the film as they strain to carry this scene through under the weight of its own insincerity. Unfortunately for the film, this example is not an isolated one. The difficulty probably stems from wanting to initiate too much personal change in the main characters in roughly 100 minutes. Letting the narrative circumstances change instead of the characters, as Sturges was prone to doing, makes the job of storytelling much easier.

A warning to feminists: you will not appreciate the emphasis the film places upon male fears of castration by women, both literal and metaphorical. It gets a little heavy-handed, although I did find Columbus’ high-tech reworking of the "praying-mantis-eats-her-mate" analogy-as-cliche to be extremely funny. However, given the popularity of Mrs. Doubtfire, there’s no reason to expect that Nine Months won’t follow in its footsteps. The best advice I can give to anyone considering this film is the following rule-of-thumb: those who loved the former film will love the latter.


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