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.
Even Sheen’s face is wrong, not just because he’s Charlie Sheen and he’s in a 9/11 movie, but because he looks more like an enchanted clay sculpture of Charlie Sheen than the genuine article. There are two odd bulges on either side of his chin, like he has cotton balls stuffed down there or is swollen from having his bicuspids removed. And it’s all shot in this dingy, sweaty cinematography normally reserved for afternoon personal injury commercials about law firms who “mean business.”
The styling is all one beat too stagey, like stock photos, like someone was trying so hard to mimic generic Americana that it’s lost all grounding detail and become a weird uncanny valley facsimile. It’s slightly sloppy and the dialogue doesn’t quite track. At one point, Eve is talking to her mom on the phone, and her six-year-son, who’s been standing next to his grandma for the past two minutes while she talks to Eve about being trapped in the elevator, asks “Grandma, where’s mom?”
Is the kid deaf? Grandma has pearls and a British accent, by the way, and the kid a gigantic mop of child actor hair parted on the side like a newscaster and a lonely baseball glove.
Likewise it’s mostly too on the nose and generic to be interesting (when Tina, the hot model, complains about her rich boyfriend buying her stuff she says “but you don’t own any of it. It. Owns. You.”). But if there’s one element of 9/11 unique enough to be interesting it’s Sheen’s character. We expect the billionaire (or just very rich, it’s slightly unclear) character to be a prick somehow, a fraud, a bad husband or father, but we’re disabused of that notion early on when he turns out to be some kind of Cliff Clavin, bursting with relevant factoids. “He reads a lot,” Eve explains after one of his knowledge effusions. “Six newspapers a day.”
“And the crosswords,” he adds.
Later, when Michael chides Jeffrey for not understanding what it’s like for the working class way up in Jeffrey’s ivory tower, Eve goes on a long, impassioned jag about how the famous Jeffrey Cage is actually a plucky striver who would’ve been stuck working on the docks with his father and brothers if he hadn’t dreamed of something bigger and worked himself to the bone trying to get it. We’re apparently supposed to side with the Cages here, Michael having been summarily disabused of his unfair assumptions about the ultra rich.
Later, Cage tells Michael, “Hey, Mike, you hear the one about the billionaire who hired a bike messenger?”
“No…” Mike says.
“Well you just did!” Jeffrey Cage says. I guess because Jeffrey is going to hire him now.
Aside from whatever humor was intended not quite translating, it’s one of 9/11‘s many Undercover Boss-like moments, where the rich guy who knows lots because he reads and has lots of money because he works hard decides to shower trifles upon the less deserving because he likes them. You know where else this happens? Strip clubs. (I’m not sure how much to read into the fact that 9/11‘s small distributor, Atlas Distribution, was before this known mainly for a three-part adaptation of Atlas Shrugged).
You keep waiting for a complication, but nope, Jeffrey Cage apparently really is just this compassionate, hard-working, deserving font of knowledge and riches, and eventually self-sacrificing love. When you remember 9/11, never forget the brave, self-sacrificing billionaire banker crossword prodigies, this movie seems to say. The film’s final shot is Sheen’s character joining hands with a fireman.
It was all a bit of a headscratcher until I listened to the Guigui interview linked above, in which Guigui describes wanting Sheen in his movie so badly that he wouldn’t make it without him. And when Sheen initially passed, Guigui ended up getting another meeting, sitting down with Sheen at Sheen’s house for four or five hours in order to find out what Sheen would need in order to commit to it. One of the conditions, apparently, was Sheen bringing on his “long-time confidant” Steven Golebiowski as the co-writer.
Why did Martin Guigui need Charlie Sheen so badly? Guigui says Sheen was just the first actor he thought of, and he had a very clear vision of Sheen playing this Wall Street guy, “maybe because of his connection to Wall Street,” Guigui says.
And so, we have a movie about 9/11, starring a guy who doesn’t believe in the official narrative of 9/11, whose very presence turns the entire project into a weird joke, who got to rewrite the script with himself as the triumphant tragic hero super genius, and why? All because the only actor the director could imagine in the role of a Wall Street guy was the guy from Wall Street. This movie might not be a deliberate joke, but that’s funny.