Rob Marshall knows how to direct a musical for the big screen. We learned that after his vision for “Chicago” earned a the big prize at the Academy Awards. That set the stakes high for “Nine,” the movie based on a musical based on a movie: “8 1/2” by Federico Fellini. If that weren’t enough, the film assembles one of the most decorated female ensembles in cinema history: seven women, five who have won Oscars, one who was nominated and one who has a Grammy. Then there’s Oscar-winning lead male Daniel Day-Lewis. But while the amount of talent is flooring, the film is not.
“Nine” possesses fantastic production values. As mentioned, Marshall knows what he’s doing as far as using a variety of angles, editing them nicely and creating mood from lighting and color. Each musical number takes place on the studio set where famed Italian director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) is expected to shoot his next film, even though he has no idea what it’s about and hasn’t written a word of it. As he searches his head and personal relationships for inspiration, they manifest themselves on stage in some form or another. At least that’s how “Nine” is supposed to work: it doesn’t always.
When Contini takes a call from his mistress Carla, played with fantastic dramatic range by Penelope Cruz, he imagines her provocative dance as she whispers similar words to him over the phone. That’s the seamless blend that Marshall’s known for conducting. Other numbers are random interruptions punctuated by unmemorable songs. It would be one thing if each number came from Contini’s imagination and helped us sympathize with his character, to whom we feel pretty indifferent, but not all do. Some, such as the emotional songs sung by Marion Cotillard as Luisa, Guido’s estranged wife, are strong (“Take It All,” which was written for the movie directly, is one of the few memorables), but they come from Luisa’s mind, not his. Much deserved praise has been given to Cotillard for her role, but the credit goes to the writing for skimping out on its lead and making her character easier to sympathize with.
Day-Lewis is not bad or unlikable and we certainly understand his character’s torment despite its abstract nature, but this understanding is more explicit than implicit. Day-Lewis is an actor of numerous strengths, but expressing complex emotion while singing is not one of them. Missing these opportunities to drum up audience support hurts his character despite the solid character portrait he creates.
The are few other highlights revolving around the other phenomenal talents in the film. Judi Dench performs well as Guido’s costume designer and psychiatrist of sorts, even holding her own in her musical number. Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson are peripheral to most intriguing parts of the story and hence feel like a waste despite how their characters are intended to influence Guido’s character. Hudson singing “Cinema Italiano,” the other number written for the film stands out like a sore thumb. It would make a great Madonna video, but that’s it. The timeless Sophia Loren is also pointless as Guido’s deceased mother because, well, he ought to have some unresolved mommy issues to explain his problems.
Other than Cotillard’s numbers, the best of the film is by far Fergie singing “Be Italian” as Saraghina, the prostitute whom Guido and his friends at a young age would pay to dance for them — Guido’s first sexual memory. The song is catchy and the way the sand from the beach in the memory makes its way onto the stage for the “production number” is highly original. That said, I’m not sure the lyrics had anything to do with anything.
“Nine” is all visual production and talent; the story and the way it works with the musical numbers and the way those numbers work with the characters is shoddy more times than not, which was what made “Chicago” such a successful adaptation. Perhaps with a few less songs or none at all, “Nine” would have been impressive on talent alone, but that would not have been Marshall’s forte. As such, we have numerous appreciable elements in what amounts to an okay film.
Directed by Rob Marshall
Written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella (screenplay), Arthur Kopit, Maury Yeston and Mario Fratti (musical)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench