Long before I got to the theater, everything about 9/11 felt… well, “off.” Who makes a movie about the most serious of subjects and then casts it like a VH-1 reality show from the late aughts? “9/11, starring Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg” sounds like the beginning of a joke, and their floating heads silhouetted above the twin towers in the poster was the perfect sight gag. All that is Serious and Solemn juxtaposed with all that is kitschy and tabloid-y, “never forget” meets “remember them?” Keep in mind that Charlie Sheen is a maybe 9/11 truther whose most famous interview was with Alex Jones, long before Alex Jones became the Sandy Hook-was-a-hoax guy.
Further digging revealed that 9/11 had been directed (and co-written) by Martin Guigui, a prolific director responsible for such films as National Lampoon’s Cattle Call (starring Jason Biggs’ wife Jenny Mollen) and The Bronx Bull (called “Raging Bull 2” before a lawsuit by MGM), a Scorsese-less not-sequel to Raging Bull starring William Forsythe. Despite this dubious pedigree, as of last week, Box Office Mojo had 9/11 set to open in full, nationwide release (since downgraded to a still substantial 425 theaters). How did this happen? Is Martin Guigui some kind of modern day Ed Wood? Is this an elaborate joke, and if so, what’s the punchline?
In order to find out I had to drive almost an hour outside San Francisco, to Concord in the north East Bay, as 9/11 was only playing in a handful of random locations outside the city. It’s the opposite pattern of your usual arthouse limited releases, a strategy I’ve occasionally seen with religious-themed movies. But 9/11 isn’t that.
The best way I can describe 9/11 is that it’s like a normal movie run through Google Translate. Everything is theoretically conventional, but again… off, in some ineffable way. In a recent interview, Guigui spoke of finding inspiration in other movies shot largely in single locations — Buried, 127 Hours — and other movies about strangers brought together by tragedy, like Paul Haggis’ Crash. Disappointingly, Guigui isn’t some eccentric foreigner with a unique grasp of English like The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau or Birdemic‘s James Nguyen. He’s just a normal-sounding guy with a decent grasp of directorsy clichés and somewhat boring, middlebrow tastes. Which is to say that he seems to aspire to a very conventional, slightly dated idea of Drama, and Serious Subject Matter.
You can feel that in the final product, which ends up feeling like a chintzy, slightly sad imitation of tacky dramas of years past, the cinematic equivalent of a decent bar band working hard to sound like Three Doors Down. Based on the play Elevator, by Patrick Carson, which Martin Guigui says he never saw, the movie follows five strangers trapped in an elevator on the eponymous day, their only connection to the outside world being cell phones and the voice of a building operations desk clerk named Metzie, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Metzie is a Mets fan, which is easy to remember. Though her distracting hair looks sort of like brown Annie ringlets arranged into novelty football helmet. Was that a thing in 2001?
The other folks who find themselves in the elevator: Jeffrey Cage and his wife, Eve (Charlie Sheen and Gina Gershon), a billionaire banker and his soon-to-be-ex-wife, if only he’d sign the papers; Eddie (Luis Guzmán), a “custodial engineer” sent to open a door and unclog a toilet; Michael (Wood Harris, a.k.a. Avon Barksdale from The Wire) a bike messenger, messenging; and Tina (Olga Fonda), a sexy model type who has come to the World Trade Center to break things off with her sugar daddy. Their elevator gets stuck when the first plane hits the tower, and they quickly become a kind of 9/11 breakfast club, revealing overly broad backstories and often just saying their characters’ motivations out loud, as when Michael says to Eddie, “Oh, so we’re just gonna do this whole black/Latino thing, huh?”
It’s not good, of course, because Guigui’s inspirations are all kind of bad, but it’s not quite bad enough to be funny either. Stock footage of 9/11 has a drama all its own, and despite their bizarre juxtaposition, these are all pretty decent actors (Guzmán is one of the all-time great character actors and, despite a long decline, Sheen maintains a base-level of competence). It’s not inept enough to be comical. It’s just… wrong, somehow.