Nine (2009) / Musical-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
Running time: 118 min.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin, Anthony Minghella (based ont he Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, translated from the Italian musical by Mario Fratti)
A bout of midlife crisis and writer's block plagues esteemed Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood), coming after a couple of flops that sees him gun-shy when it comes to his creativity, which isn't good when he has to commence shooting his new picture within the next few days. Rather then bear down and get to work, Contini spends much of his time these days agonizing about his block, while romancing a few starlets, and displeasing his wife (Cotillard, Big Fish) with a lack of attention. The public is anxiously awaiting his comeback film, but his life is a mess, and he likely won't be able to continue with all of the emotional baggage he's carrying. He looks back over his life, his loves, and his drive to try to rediscover what made him one of the world's greatest and most inspired of directors.
Rob Marshall (Memoirs of a Geisha), having gained critical an commercial acclaim in adapting the hit musical Chicago to the big screen, returns once again to deliver the Broadway hit, and Tony winner for Best Musical of 1982 (as well as Best Revival later), Nine. Marshall makes quite a few cosmetic changes to the original work, including making Contini a little bit older, changing the setting from Venice to Rome, making his wife Luisa quite a bit younger, removing about half of the songs, and, sadly, losing much of the spirit.
Nine is fueled by its bells and whistles, including lavish sound and set design, graceful and beautiful actresses, and Marshall's slick, stylish approach to capturing the song and dance numbers. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't quite match up in the eye-candy appeal of the alluring actresses, but he does put himself every bit into a role that requires him to deliver an authentic Italian accent (he actually learned Italian in preparation for the role) and to sing, which is where he does offer a pleasant surprise. Still, Day-Lewis's persona, dynamic though it may be, is often rather impersonal, which can be a liability when put into the middle of a piece that requires that the character be consummately charismatic to the media and beguilingly irresistable to women.
When you have a cast chock full of Oscar winners, a cavalcade of beautiful actors, an $80 million budget, a director and production team who've delivered a Best Picture with their last big screen musical effort, a screenplay adaptation by Oscar nominees Michael Tolkin (The Producer, Changing Lanes) and the late Anthony Minghella (The Reader, The Talented Mr. Ripley), and a multiple Tony Award-winning musical with a large cult following, you wonder how in the world such a production could possibly go wrong. Although everyone appears to give it their all, Nine suffers from being uninvolving for most of its run time, and if there is a word I might use to sum up the experience for someone who doesn't already know and love the original musical unconditionally, it would be, "boring."
The reasons why are numerous, but it starts with the fact that it has been removed from its stage setting and made into a film. In the realm of Broadway musicals, "Nine" offered a unique flavor by being about the making of movies, and its personalities behind the scenes. In the the realm of Hollywood films, movies about the making of movies are quite common, and a large number, if not most, are about the difficulties of making movies and the struggle of the artistic forces behind them to find their voice. If you're familiar with the work of Fellini, to whom the musical is paying homage to (the musical is basically a semi-remake of Fellini's 8 1/2), there may be some added interest in correlating the events of Contini's life with that of the real-life history of the vaunted filmmaker. But removing the allusions and taking it as its own story, there isn't much interest in following a director's difficulty in coming up with an idea for movie to make, while seeing gorgeous women mysteriously, unequivocally adore him when he never treats them as anything more than disposable distractions.
An unspectacular central story isn't uncommon in musicals, which tend to come to life through the song and dance numbers. Given this, one might reasonably expect Nine to get a shot in the arm once we veer away from Contini's constant sulking about the state of his pathetic work and home life once its actors put on their sexiest attire and slink around belting out sumptuously scored musical performances. Alas, the songs, at least as presented here, are largely unmemorable, and they revolve around things that we're given very little to care about -- namely, Contini's problems and his style of moviemaking.
Not that Marshall digs deep to come up with ways to make these musical pieces stand out from the rest. While the sets and settings might be different for each number, and they are undeniably skillfully photographed and mounted, they are all done in the same style, mixing black-&-white shots with those of garish colors, lots of moving cameras, an abundance of music video editing, and a showcase of glamorous pageantry of lingerie seemingly pulled out of a Victoria's Secret Fashion Show If Marshall could have at least shot each piece to be distinct from the rest, it would have gone a long way to breaking up the film's style to give these pieces the breathing room they need to exist on their own. Also, most of the songs are around the angst, longing, and feeling of the individual performer singing them. Rather that frame these songs in an intimate and personal style, they are all as showy and extravagant as the rest of the film, diffusing the genuine feeling behind the words of the songs and what they mean to the characters.
When the personalities are drowned under a razzle-dazzle shower of erotic flamboyance, and the drama in between the music pieces consists of shots of a monosyllabic Contini aloofly hunched over and depressed sitting on the edge of a variety of different hotel beds, there isn't much a viewer can really get a handle on from what should have been an intimate and introspective portrayal of a great but troubled artist. By trying to wow us in our seats, Marshall busily lulls us into indifference, as we can't see why there seems to be such a big deal made about one philandering film director's artistic blockage and his wrangling of not-terribly-traumatic-or-even-particularly-notable childhood memories.
©2009 Vince Leo