Movie Review: Nine
The Charlotte Observer
It seems perverse to say a musical is at its best when nobody is singing, but "Nine" is a perverse kind of musical.
Daniel Day-Lewis is only a passable vocalist, so Rob Marshall excised three of the five songs given to his character in the 1982 Broadway musical (including "The Bells of Saint Sebastian," a showstopper).
Director Marshall had a justifiably huge success with "Chicago," so he applied similar techniques here. I never thought I'd tire of women in bustiers, fishnet stockings and high heels, stomping and whipping their long hair back and forth, but I was wrong.
Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella wrote a witty screenplay, but it unbalances the Broadway version by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston.
The stage and film musicals have the same spokes-on-a-wheel structure, with Italian filmmaker Guido Contini at the center and women in his life revolving around him. But in the play, Contini stood out among the crowd, as he wrestled with artistic dilemmas and half-fulfilled loves. The movie's Guido (Day-Lewis) shrinks in stature, and the women take over the film.
Part of the problem is that famous actresses were cast in parts too small to let them disappear into their roles. If we know that Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Penélope Cruz and Nicole Kidman have one number each as Guido's costumer, mother, mistress and muse, we simply wait to hear how well they sing (Dench, Kidman) or see how great they look (Cruz at 35, Loren at 75).
Marion Cotillard makes a lasting impression and develops a fragmentary character as Guido's long-suffering wife; she almost breaks your heart in her two songs, and you sense that her insincere husband's creative paralysis comes partly from guilt over mistreating her. But Marshall can't spend too much time on her. He has to move on to the American fashion journalist, a useless role written from scratch so Kate Hudson can belt an original song meant to garner an Oscar nomination.
The title "Nine" pays tribute to "81/2," Federico Fellini's loosely autobiographical 1963 movie, which won Oscars for costumes and foreign film. (It got its name because Fellini had directed 81/2 movies, eight features and a segment in an anthology, before his inspiration stalled.) The title of "Nine" also refers to Guido's remark that his body is turning 50 while his mind is nearing 10.
Day-Lewis does a terrific job of reconciling the responsible, conflicted adult with the stubbornly immature inner child. His wry performance is full of small details, even when acting out the two musical numbers left to him. But this subtlety is often at odds with Marshall's vision.
Take the thigh-slapping "Be Italian," sung in flashback by a prostitute who lives on the beach in Guido's hometown. She emerges in rags, singing lustily and sifting handfuls of sand in front of the watching boys to signify the passage of time. (Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame is ideal.)
Then, suddenly, she's in a bustier and red boa, facing us backwards over a chair in a film studio. She's surrounded by a chorus of women in bustiers and red boas, all doing the hair whip and sifting sand from ... well, who cares? The number isn't a homage to Fellini or a memory of Contini; it's a knockoff of "He Had It Coming" from "Chicago," as if those cell-block murderesses and these cheerful hookers were interchangeable cogs.
I understand the metaphor: Director Contini turns his experiences into movies, often suppressing gritty realities and whipping up elaborate, emotionally hollow fantasies. I just wish director Marshall hadn't done the same thing.