Filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia has a shtick. He rounds up a bunch of Hollywood actresses of a certain age -- fine performers who no longer get the roles their talents deserve -- then lets them fly in short, incisive tales of ordinary madness. ''Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" from 2000 was a five-tale omnibus, while ''Ten Tiny Love Stories," unreleased in this country, delivered what its title promised. Now comes ''Nine Lives," featuring many of the same actors, and you have to wonder if Garcia has a peculiarly cinematic form of ADD.
Whatever -- it seems to work. The brief, unrelated shards of women's lives we see in the new film are dark, harrowing, and acted with pinpoint skill, but taken as a whole ''Nine Lives" avoids larger statements. That's a good thing. Unlike Rebecca Miller in her similar ''Personal Velocity" (2002), Garcia is content to let each vignette speak acidly for itself, and to let us fill in the blanks of female distress on our own.
In a sense, these are high-octane acting exercises, and their various impacts depend on the performers, their predicaments, and what the individual viewer brings to them. Other critics have cited the opening sequence, featuring Elpidia Carrillo as an LA County Jail inmate losing her grip, as the finest in the movie, whereas it struck this writer as the most heavy-handed. By contrast, the next ''life" is a bare-bones knockout about an upscale expectant mother (Robin Wright Penn) running into an ex-lover (Jason Isaacs) while grocery shopping. As Garcia's camera follows her in circles around the aisles, Penn gives a master class in love, lust, anger, sorrow, and pain.
The segments bump up against each other in unpredictable ways, like strangers who keep crossing paths. A resonant family scene among a disabled dad (Ian McShane), his patient wife (Sissy Spacek), and the luminous teenage daughter (Amanda Seyfried) who loves him and hates her roils with unspoken emotion; later, we see Spacek's character in a motel with her lover, a boozy philosopher played by Aidan Quinn. The prison guard from the opening sequence (Miguel Sandoval) reappears as the father of a distraught woman (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who reappears as the nurse of a tetchy cancer patient (Kathy Baker, excellent). The movie says we never see the threads that connect us all.
Two segments deserve special mention. In one, Amy Brenneman plays a woman at the funeral of her ex-husband's second wife; the ex (William Fichtner) is deaf and still hasn't gotten over her, leading to a small, absurdly funny explosion of bad behavior. In the final scene, a mother (Glenn Close) and her young daughter (Dakota Fanning) have a picnic in a cemetery, and the mood is both light and mournful for reasons you may miss if you're not paying attention.
Garcia, a former cinematographer, is the son of the legendary Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his heart-struck miniatures are the opposite of his father's ripe and teeming work. Not all of ''Nine Lives" clicks, but at its best it finds an inarticulate sisterly solace that makes you want to see what this director could do with one life per film.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.