Friday, December 18, 2009

By the Numbers

Directed by Rob Marshall
Written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella
Based on the musical by Maury Yeston
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie
Opens December 18, 2009

Nine, Maury Yeston’s Broadway musicalization of Fellini’s 8-1/2—the story of a creatively blocked film director juggling the women in his life with his increasingly muddled plans for a new project following his biggest hit—has been made into a movie by Rob Marshall, so you know what that means.

Marshall (whose stillborn adaptation of Chicago amazingly won the Best Picture Oscar) jettisons the wonderful ambiguities that the director, Guido Contini, brings to the fore about the intersections of art, love and life for more superficial pleasures: namely, a cast of (mostly) Oscar winners getting the chance to sing and dance in music video-style segments that stop the movie’s momentum dead at every turn.

Nine the movie is all surfaces. Marshall shoots in both color and black and white, intercutting sequences that allude to Fellini’s great Roman epic, La Dolce Vita, as well as 8-1/2, but without coming anywhere near the moral and intellectual issues that Fellini’s conflicted protagonists of both films dealt with. That suave and urbane Marcello Mastroianni played Fellini’s heroes in La Dolce Vita and 8-1/2 both films shows how unconvincing Daniel Day-Lewis is in the new movie. Though appropriately brooding and charming, he’s never a believable world-famous filmmaker with women falling at his feet. He sings tolerably but is even less memorable than Antonio Banderas, who wasn’t that impressive in the 2003 Broadway revival.

Marshall’s repetitive, derivative musical sequences are staged, shot and edited as the inner workings of Guido’s restlessly creative mind, which is what Bob Fosse did far more powerfully in his own Fellini homage, the nakedly autobiographical All That Jazz. That Marshall himself also did this in Chicago, in which it made even less sense, gives him an obvious directorial signature on which to hang his auteurist credentials.

Guido’s women—including mistress Carla, movie star Claudia, costume designer Lili, Vogue reporter Stephanie, prostitute Saraghina, and his mother—are given one song each, except his wife Luisa, who gets two. Saraghina’s signature song, “Be Italian,” demonstrates all that’s wrong with the movie Nine. Not only is Fergie perfectly insipid as the object of young Guido and his friends’ desire, but Marshall and Yeston have dropped “you rapscallion” from her song, presumably because no one knows what the word means any more. In a movie about filmmaking that’s set in Italy in the 1960s and includes a smattering of Italian words, “rapscallion” is too much for an audience to comprehend?

Marshall’s lone inspired casting is Cotillard, who makes a smashingly good Luisa, not only singing her songs—“My Husband Makes Movies” and the new “Take It All,” high points of the show—with emotion but putting them over persuasively; she also makes the stock figure of the genius’ put-upon wife extremely sympathetic, breaking our hearts while hers is also being shattered. Judi Dench is an amusing Lili, Guido’s sidekick-cum-conscience, while the others range from tolerable (Penelope Cruz’s Carla, Nicole Kidman’s Claudia, Sophia Loren’s Momma) to terrible (Kate Hudson’s Stephanie alongside the aforementioned Fergie). To cast Nine, Marshall must have looked at a list of non-American Oscar winners and chose Day-Lewis, Cotillard, Cruz, Dench, Kidman and Loren. As for the two American actresses, I bet that if Nine came out next year, we’d have Megan Fox and Lady Gaga instead of Kate Hudson and Fergie.

Nine worked onstage because of the distance between the mediums of theater and film; onscreen, it’s merely an annoying pastiche that makes you want to revisit any Fellini film as soon as possible. If Marshall’s Nine is not quite a total zero, it’s only because Cotillard is a perfect 10.

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