Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie
Oh, Nine, you disappointed me. Maybe it's my own fault because I had such high expectations for so long, but why shouldn't I have had high expectations? The cast is phenomenal, it's based on both a popular play and a classic film, and it's directed by Rob Marshall, whose feature film debut Chicago I loved (seriously, I will defend its win for Best Picture to the death). So what went wrong? Maybe it's a case of too many good things in one place, but make no mistake: something has gone terribly, terribly wrong here.
The film is an adaptation of the stage play that is itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and follows director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles to pull his next film together. Sets have been built, costumes are being made, screen tests are being performed, interviews about the impending work have been conducted; the only thing missing is a script. Contini is blocked, hindered by the failure of his most recent films and driven to distraction by the women in his life; he just can’t pull himself together long enough to find inspiration and put it down on paper.
Now, about those women: there’s his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), once a great actress but now just his support system; his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz); his muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman); his confidante/wardrobe mistress Lilli (Judi Dench); his mother (Sophia Loren); and an American reporter (Kate Hudson) determined to get an exclusive, of sorts, with him. There is also Seraghina (Fergie), the local prostitute of his childhood memories who still sparks his imagination. Now, when I first saw the cast list for this film and read Day-Lewis, Cotillard, Cruz, Dench, Loren, Kidman, Hudson and Fergie, my first thought was something along the lines of, “one of these things is not like the others.” Let it be said, however, that Fergie’s brief time on screen the only time when the film really seems to come alive and her number, “Be Italian,” is the only one with any genuine fire in it (though Cruz gives it the old college try with “A Call From The Vatican”). The film’s biggest problem, ultimately, is that aside from “Be Italian,” none of the musical numbers is particularly memorable. Not a good sign for a musical.
The other problem, one which might not be so glaring if the music itself was stonger, is that the characters don't have much in the way of depth. We get to know Guido pretty well and Cotillard is given enough time to etch out a moderately distinct character (truth be told, the only resonant moments in the film are in the scenes between Day-Lewis and Cotillard), but the others are as thin as paper. In dress and manner Carla is the antithesis of Luisa - that's apparently all we need to know about her in order to understand her relationship with Guido. What is it about Claudia that inspires Guido so? What are we supposed to take away from Guido's flirtation with the sycophantic reporter? Nine depends on the audience to respond to the actors rather than the characters so that you fill in the blanks by saying, "Guido is drawn to Carla because she's Penelope Cruz; Guido is inspired by Claudia because she's Nicole Kidman; Guido flirts with the reporter because she's Kate Hudson; etc." This isn't the fault of the actors; it's because, metaphorically speaking, the film is too busy looking down at its feet and counting the steps to invest itself in the moment and create a genuine foundation for its glossy, beautiful surface. It all looks amazing but it never relaxes enough to become anything more than an assemblage of parts.
Structurally, Nine is quite similar to Chicago, with the musical numbers taking place on a stage in the imagination of the protagonist. This worked marvellously in the earlier film, but here it feels disruptive and a bit clunky. What's the difference? Roxie Hart was a spunky gal with delusions of grandeur; Guido Contini is a brooding genius who can't find happiness despite having everything available to him for the asking. Aside from the fact that Roxie is a more relatable/sympathetic character (everyone, at one point or another, has imagined being a "star" of some sort), there's also the fact that a story about wanting something has more and better energy than a story about having everything and still being unhappy. Chicago was fun and had a lot of bite to it; Nine is gloomy and kind of aimless - to be honest, there were times when I was actually quite bored with it. Like I said, it looks good (the cinematography, in particular, is gorgeous) and there are a few good moments scattered throughout (there would have to be with that much talent in front of and behind the camera), but it's ultimately a failure as a film.