You leave Nine not with a strong taste of dislike in your mouth but with a taste of disappointment. With a cast, premise, and director this good, you'd expect a musical masterpiece in a cinematic territory where there aren’t any musicals to compare it to. But it features no good songs, several clunkily placed musical numbers, and more than a few actors who are either miscast or relatively pointless in the grand scheme of the storyline. With all the iconoclasts involved, a single question percolates in our mind: what happened?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Nine is an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, which in itself is a remake, or, at least, an homage to, Federico Fellini’s iconic 1963 film 8 1/2. I can imagine it working much better as a play, where musical interludes can flow in and out of the area with ease and where melodramatic artifice is relatively expected.
But as a movie, Nine pays more attention to where it comes from than it does to its source, capturing none of the color left behind by 8 1/2. Its lack of an emotional tug causes one to question whether it actually has to be filmed as a musical at all — we often times find that, just as dramatic scenes are beginning to gain momentum, interruption is caused by the inclusion of a performative dream world. It’s a maddening case of a good film buried underneath a mixed up, persistently fallacious one.
A major point of concern also comes from the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis, who, by no means, gives a bad performance — he is just miscast, to a distracting degree. An English method actor portraying an Italian director? It doesn’t work. (I echo the sentiments of Roger Ebert, who suggests Javier Bardem or Gael Garcia Bernal for the role.) Day-Lewis plays the film’s protagonist, Guido Cantini, a filmmaker who has touched greatness in the past but has begun the process of slipping in recent years. His latest, titled Italia, is without a script or any form of a concept — and though his muse (Nicole Kidman) is ready to headline, it soon becomes obvious that he’s using the project as a way to shield himself from the harsh truths overwhelming his personal life.
His wife, former actress Luisa (Marion Cotillard), is growing tired of the way he selfishly moves about life, caring about his happiness, his love, but not hers; his mistress, the fiery Carla (Penélope Cruz), has been with him long enough to crave commitment, tiring of late-night rendezvouses and ready for a relationship they can celebrate openly. Audiences bombard him with declarations that they love his older movies, not what he has to say today.
So as doubts pile and concerns from his colleagues mount, Guido soon finds himself in the midst of a midlife crisis. Though he would rather die than admit it, pausing his professional life and taking a second to reflect on his personal one might be the only way he can claw his way back up to the top.
Nine has the workings of a gigantically investing storyline (just look at the greatness of 8 1/2), but Rob Marshall’s unwise decision to take musical sequences to completely different locations causes the continuity of the film to suffer. While the best examples of the genre put a spotlight on the tireless trope of a character’s ability to suddenly break out into song, song-and-dance numbers are located on what appears to be a stage, completely separate from the scene in store and therefore diminishing our interest in what was happening before it. Worse, the songs are graceless (the lyrics directly reflecting the situation in awkward poetic nature rather than utilizing the art of the metaphor), the choreography coming with them slightly inspired but, more often than not, too stagey, too (pardon the term) corny.
The film would be better off as a straight drama with a more fitting leading man — if being a musical is too desperate a thing, more sequential would be numbers that take place within the same world the characters live in, not somewhere floating in a fantasyland of masterful set design.
But movie isn’t all wasted potential, and that’s due to its women, who are the best thing about Nine. With the exception of Kate Hudson and Fergie, who stun with their singing talents but are ultimately pointless (the writers’ fault), the actresses are phenomenal. Penélope Cruz, Oscar-nominated for the film, makes a bold impression, especially in her Rita Hayworth-on-acid musical sequence, and Marion Cotillard, who dreamt of making a Hollywood musical for years before the film’s release, proves herself to be a sublime singer while also stretching her abilities in American cinema. Kidman is chic and solid as Guido’s toothsome muse, Judi Dench is believably wise as his concerned personal assistant, and Sophia Loren causes one to desire she had more screen time as our hero’s mother.
Everything else about Nine, however, needs work — we’re left feeling rather empty because we can imagine the film it might have been had it been directed and written by people with steadier humanistic touches and a lot less of an obsession with making things big and bold. Still, the actresses are ridiculously good, and I’m not planning on discounting their work anytime soon just because the men surrounding them don’t seem to know what the hell to do with them. C+