Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Nine" is no "8 & ½"

"Nine" is being released on DVD today, the film adaptation of the musical "Nine," that was in turn based on Federico Fellini's monumental "8 & ½." It was one of the films that I was most looking forward to at the beginning of last year - and I think it's clear why. The assembled cast reads like a dream: double Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead as film director Guido Contini, surrounded by acclaimed actresses Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Dame Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Marion Cotillard, and Kate Hudson. Add director Rob Marshall, who turned "Chicago" into a big-screen smash, and a script co-written by the late Anthony Minghella, and it looked like a surefire bet. Sadly, the actual result is a mediocre film at best.

From the start, "Nine" struggles under the shadow of "8 & ½." It wants to be an homage to the great age of Italian cinema, going so far as to declare its intentions through song in the upbeat "Cinema Italiano" number. But aside from recreating some of the most famous shots from the Fellini original, Marshall doesn't ever quite capture the essence of his subject matter. There are shots of beautiful Italian vistas, period fashions, and lots of heavy accents of varying credibility, but it all feels rather empty and unenlivened. The plot is taken directly from the original film, wherein the famed director is suffering an acute case of director's block on the eve of his newest film's production. At the same time his relationships with all the women in his life, including his wife, mistress, muse, confidante, and a charming American reporter, are getting increasingly complicated and threatening to collide. Guido seeks to escape, both physically, to a seaside spa, and mentally, into flights of fantasy.

Rob Marshall takes the same approach to "Nine" as he did with "Chicago," staging most of the song numbers as fantastical musical sequences that reflect the characters' inner emotional reality, intercut with the traditional linear narrative. This allows for elaborate fantasy settings like bawdy Parisian cabarets and smoky nightclubs, as well as black-and-white sequences for Guido's memories. The trouble is, the connecting scenes between the numbers are weak, pretty much just shuttling us from one beautiful set piece to the next. Daniel Day-Lewis does his best, but our evasive hero is never given enough substance to really ground Guido Contini as a sympathetic figure. And since he's the central character of the film around which the others revolve, the entire story often feels adrift. Most of the women around him are fleeting presences, hardly around long enough to connect with Guido, much less the audience.

Still, there are elements of the film that work. I've never seen the stage musical of "Nine," but the songs are decent enough to make me temporarily forget Nino Rota's "8 & ½" score, with a few standout numbers that linger pleasantly in the ear. Likewise, the performances vary from adequate to exceptional, with Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, and The Black-Eyed Peas' singer Fergie - in her first major screen role - coming off the best. It's always a little dicey when untrained singers are cast in a film musical, as Joel Schumacher's dubious "Phantom of the Opera" proved, but most of the cast acquit themselves decently. If nothing else, Marshall ensures that everything looks fabulous, with the lavish sets, ornate costumes, and dazzling cinematography. As awards season Oscar bait, they certainly spared no expense.

Ultimately, I think it's difficult to consider the film separately from its progenitors, because it feels so derivative. "Nine" purposefully evokes Italian neorealism and Fellini, but doesn't seem to take anything from them except the most superficial details. I was surprised that the fantasy sequences were so limited - the most memorable ones from "8 & ½," that allowed all of Guido's female influences to meet and interact, were completely missing. Considering the cast of "Nine," that's a huge opportunity lost. "Nine" does give us a lot - a lot of big actors, a lot of frenetic pageantry, and a a lot of unfettered emotions. At times it's fun to watch and I even got a bit of a thrill from Fergie's number.

But it not "8 & ½" or even "Chicago." At best it's a well-meaning effort to combine the two. At worst, it's just not a very good one.

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