Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Based on pedigree alone, Nine was all but anointed of the eventual 10 Best Picture nominees at this year's Oscar ceremony. Then the film got released. Now it is all but deadin every way, from its box-office haul to that once-certain B.P. nod. Why?

Because the film kinda sucks.

The film is the latest in the line of flashy Broadway musical adaptations, following most directly in the footsteps of Chicago and Dreamgirls. It is directed by Chicago's Rob Marshall and written by Michael Tolkin and the late, ever-so-great Anthony Minghella. The screenplay falters because, despite its history, this material is not ripe for musical adaptation. Sure, Nine has been produced as a musical in countless venues in more than one country for years, but the songs are not notable, the story is not particularly engaging, and the spirit is completely in opposition to the nature of the musical. Nine, which is inspired by Federico Fellini's legendary masterpiece, 8 1/2, is the story of a selfish artist in professional stasis and psychological turmoil, and it is played as a flashy, triumphant musical with huge numbers and glitzy costumes. Sorry, doesn't work.

The cast, as usual, is impressive. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, celebrated Italian auteur who is suffering from a creative block. Contini -- or Anselmi, as he was named in Fellini's film -- was always intended as a psychic stand-in for Fellini himself. He never meets any deadlines, is a chronic lothario, and never, ever has a finished screenplay for his cast and crew to work from. But where Fellini developed great art from his artistic turmoil, the musical version of Guido seems like a mopey, pretentious cad who doesn't deserve our attention. The great Day-Lewis' portrayal is serviceable but not successful, and not just because his singing voice is distractingly reminiscent of Count Dracula. The character is just not lovable, and his plight isn't appealing as a song-and-dance.

Rounding out the cast are the women in Guido's life: Marion Cotillard plays his wife, Penelope Cruz his mistress, Nicole Kidman his muse, Sophia Loren his mother, Judi Dench his costume desginer, Kate Hudson a flirtatious American reporter, and Fergie the voluptuous town whore who helped form Guido's world view. The actresses are all talented and all game, but their material is simply D.O.A. Most of the songs are boring downers -- the only two to strike any sort of musical or cinematic stride are Hudson's "Cinema Italiano" and Fergie's "Be Italian," both big, lively, well-performed numbers that most accurately exude what the film is really about. Cotillard is fabulous, especially in her last soul-bearing number, and Cruz makes the most of her fluffy mistress character, but none of the actresses are given much to do other than show up, sing their song, and disappear. All musicals must overcome the struggle that their plots are intended to string the big showcase musical numbers together, but Nine really feels like anything in between the songs is lame filler. And in this case, most of the songs are lame filler as well.

Rob Marshall has developed a pretty successful film career for himself, but watching Nine, it became clear to me that he is a gifted stylist, but not really a director. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, but that is thanks mostly to the gifts of cinematographer Dion Beebe, editors Claire Simpson an Wyatt Smith, and production designer John Myhre. Marshall stages and choreographs the lavish musical numbers well, but that is because he cops to the same proscenium-based style he that worked well for him in Chicago, a style that is entertaining but not fulfilling. In Chicago, the created conceit that the songs took place in Roxie's bruised mind worked well in the context of the film. In Nine, some of the numbers take place in Guido's head, but others clearly do not, yet they are still staged on some fictitious plane we are just intended to buy. The material isn't engaging enough and the songs not pleasing enough for us to make that kind of leap.

The musical motion picture has experienced a well-deserved revival in the last decade, but Nine is easily the weakest entry into that canon. Not every Broadway show can be successfully adapted into a film, and not every classic film should be adapted into a Broadway show. Nine is a prime example of both.

No comments: