“Nine” is the movie that the detractors of “Chicago” accused it of being.
Like “Chicago,” Rob Marshall is working from a major Broadway show. He’s made a very specific stylistic choice, dictated in no small part by the work of a very strong screenwriter. On “Chicago,” it was braniac Bill Condon, whose cellular-level understanding of musicals, even in casual conversation, is amazing. And he cracked that film’s conceit in the script. Here, Anthony Minghella was the guy who really did the heavy lifting. Michael Tolkin did some early work on the film, adapting the stage production written by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, who also wrote some new material for the film as well, who were themselves adapting a stage production by Mario Fratti, inspired by the film by Federico Fellini.
That’s a lot of hands for something to go through, and when you consider how personal “8 1/2” was for Fellini, it seems doubly strange for this many people to spend this much time and energy retelling the story. It’s not like this is some universal tale that everyone can relate to: it’s the story of a director of several major cultural hit films who is finding himself blocked as he approaches the start of production on his next film, even as he juggles a wife and a mistress who both feel neglected.
“Nine” is a minefield of artistic mistakes, and all of them ultimately come back to Rob Marshall, who has a lot to prove here. “Chicago” was such a huge debut for a filmmaker, and helped re-establish musicals as a viable commercial genre in American films. The film is hobbled from the very beginning by the main character, Guido Contini. At no point in the movie are we shown anything that actually demonstrates that Contini is a great filmmaker. We’re told, but we’re not shown. So every indulgence of his, which we’re asked to accept because he is a “great man,” is simply bad behavior. Considering the entire film basically plays out as an internal landscape, with all the woman in Guido’s life moving on and off the stage inside his head, we learn shockingly little about who he is or what drives him. And if he remains a blank, then the film simply doesn’t work.
That’s not to say that the individual pieces of the movie are bad. There are some great moments in the movie. Both Marion Cotillard as the long-suffering wife and Penelope Cruz as the long-suffering mistress are sensational. Cotillard has the most powerful number in the film, “My Husband Makes Movies,” and it’s piercing. She made me feel what the film couldn’t, the human connection between Louisa and her husband that is in danger of collapsing, and Cotillard continues to build as a performer with each film she does. She manages to play the love she feels for her husband and the disappointment that nearly cripples her, without either one overpowering the other. That’s a tricky balancing act. Cruz has a more one-note role to play as the married mistress who wants what she wants no matter who it hurts, and she gets one huge number, “A Call From The Vatican,” which she tears into like a starving person who’s been handed a steak. I think the last few years has been a major turning point for Cruz, and in film after film right now, she proves that there are very few actresses as in touch with their onscreen sensuality. It’s not just about looking good, although Cruz is one of the most beautiful actresses working these days. It’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin, about being completely in command of your instrument, and the way Cruz blows through this film like a hurricane, it’s a miracle there was any oxygen left for anyone else.
When you have a cast like this one, with Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, and Daniel Day Lewis, it would be reasonable to expect greatness from start to finish. Just hiring great actors isn’t a guarantee, though. You have to give them something to do, something worth their talents. When you ask Daniel Day Lewis to play a cipher, a character with no center, this is what you end up with. It’s a technically decent performance, but to what effect? I don’t like Guido, I don’t empathize with Guido, and I don’t care if Guido makes his movie or not. I don’t care if he saves his marriage or not, since it’s obvious he doesn’t either. I don’t really understand when we’re asked to have empathy for characters who are chronically unfaithful to their spouses. It’s a full-time job for me to disappoint one woman… why would I want to complicate that by adding more women to the mix? It’s been said that men are only as faithful as their options allow them to be, and maybe that’s true of characters like Guido, but it still doesn’t make their struggle interesting. This may be one of the biggest missteps in the career of Day Lewis, and that, more than anything, has got to count as a black mark against the movie. Miscasting someone as great as him is damn near criminal. Loren strolls through the film, waving like she’s making a personal appearance at a parade. I love her and respect her value as a cinema icon, but seriously… this is all she has to do in the film? Why bother? To make matters worse, Kidman and Dench are both kneecapped by weak songs that add nothing to the movie, which is a problem that seems to be somewhat inherent to the material.
One of the best numbers in the film as far as conception and execution is “Cinema Italiano,” sung by Kate Hudson, who plays an American reporter who is fascinated by Guido and his films, and who offers herself to him in exchange for all the pleasure his work has given her. The number just works, and Hudson has never worked harder in any role she’s played. But if you were to cut the number and the character, you’d have exactly the same film, and that troubles me. I’m a big believer that the best films are built on a solid bedrock of theme, and if you aren’t writing each scene, each character for a purpose, towards some end, then you’ll end up with something that feels random, disconnected, even if it entertains. At least with Fergie, her big number ties in directly to Guido’s formative years, and she certainly sings the hell out of her part. She’s not asked to do anything more than play (literally) a big fat whore, and I admire the gusto with which she embodies the role. Like much of the film, though, her sequence is undercooked. I know what it is trying to say or do, but that’s not the same as actually doing it.
In the end, the best movie musicals are the ones where the music works as an extension of the drama or the comedy or the emotion, where we understand that the singing and the dancing is just an expression of the humanity of the people we’re watching. I love the musical when it works. I think it is as pure an art form as we have on stage or screen. But “Nine” is a product, something that feels too calculated to ever really live and breathe, and the end result is too artificial, too disjointed to be counted as a success.
“Nine” opens in limited release on December 18th, then goes wide on Christmas Day.
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