Photo: Atlas Distribution Company

Several big-ticket Hollywood movies based on real-life tragedies have imagined what it would be like if a fictional romance-novel plot were taking place amid all the disaster. Befitting its smaller scope and enormous tedium, 9/11 imagines what it would be like if a bad Off-Off-Broadway play were taking place amid the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The answer invites bad-taste jokes before even getting to its casting of Charlie Sheen in a lead role.

Sheen plays addled billionaire Jeffrey Cage, whose name and vague occupation have the distinction of sounding both like a Nicolas Cage character and Nicolas Cage himself (the Cage-like overacting comes much later). Jeffrey is at the World Trade Center to reluctantly finalize a divorce from his wife, Eve (Gina Gershon)—so reluctantly that he attends this early-morning meeting at the famous building (where, the movie points out repeatedly but to little point, he used to own some office space, but doesn’t anymore) just to dick around, attempt to wistfully smoke a cigarette, and refuse to sign.

Jeffrey and Eve enter an elevator together in the South Tower at just the right/wrong fateful time. The first plane hits the North Tower, the power goes out, and the unhappy couple is trapped with three strangers: “janitorial engineer” Eddie (Luis Guzmán), bike messenger Michael (Wood Harris), and apparent trophy girlfriend Tina (Olga Fonda). Eddie and Michael both have families waiting for them. Tina, in a brief gesture that the movie somehow doesn’t spin off into a hacky explanation, indicates she does not. Eddie manages some outside communication with his friend Metzie (Whoopi Goldberg), who works down at the elevator control center but doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about elevators. (She also doesn’t seem to know how getting coffee to-go works; early on, she pops into a diner, gets coffee in a ceramic mug, and takes it with her onto the street.)

Although it’s padded with cheap reaction shots of tearful families watching TV, most of 9/11 alternates between the low-tech mechanics of how to get out of a stopped, locked elevator and Breakfast Club-style locked-room conversation. Both sections feature unnaturally long pauses between lines and unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem of shooting in a small, static space by pitching the camera forward. While it’s not confined strictly to the elevator, the only location shots come from real news footage, which director Martin Guigui lingers on shamelessly.

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If the half-hearted escape attempts aren’t filmed with any real tension by Guigui, they’re less galling than the would-be defiance of expectations. Get this: It’s the black guy, Michael, who’s outwardly racist! Luckily, Gershon’s character is there to unironically lecture Michael about not prejudging her hard-working billionaire almost-ex. To clarify, this is a movie co-written by one of Charlie Sheen’s producers on Anger Management wherein Sheen played a hard-working billionaire who had no discernible character flaws apart from working too hard to support his family and loving his wife too much to divorce her.

Sheen spends the last half-hour of the movie promising jobs and riches to the plucky minorities who do most of the actual physical labor involved in prying open elevator doors, and then, finally, unleashes some sweaty scenery-chewing as their dire situation grows worse. But ultimately these actors don’t deserve much blame, apart from their bad judgment in signing on to a movie that seems to be willing itself into existence against all reason. The screenplay by Guigui and Steven James Golebiowski is, as the intimate setting suggests, based on a play, apparently written by Patrick Carson as a screenplay and later converted into a play, only to have it re-adapted into a new script.

This tenacity suggests, puzzlingly, that the people behind 9/11 really believe in it. By invoking September 11th, this movie is announcing that it has something to say. New Yorkers may recognize this confidence and the nothingness that follows; it’s the film equivalent of a guy loudly demanding the attention of everyone in a subway car, then refusing to even issue a compellingly strange rant. Best to slip on some headphones and try to ignore it.

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