It’s ironic Rob Marshall‘s Nine, which focuses on the exploits of a famed film director, lacks any cinematic whallop. Beautifully mounted and with a charismatic central performance, it is easy to admire Marshall’s desire to recreate the magic of Chicago, his Academy-Award winning debut. The problem with Marshall’s latest is at an institutional level. On Broadway, Nine‘s impressive musical spectacle can substitute for its ho-hum plot. Coupled with predictable emotional arcs, the big screen adaptation cannot capture the immediacy of the stage.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, the de-facto Frederico Fellini, universally admired for his earlier directorial efforts. Contini’s past two features flopped, so now he must make a considerable impression with Italia, his eagerly anticipated ninth movie (hence the title). Trouble is Contini has no script. Put in an unenviable position, the director looks back on his life, particularly on the women who left an impression. His actress wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) served as an early muse, though lately Contini relies on the charismatic Claudia (Nicole Kidman). Obviously a man of Contini’s reputation isn’t confined to monogamy – he has a consistent mistress (Penélope Cruz) and random affairs with beautiful journalists (Kate Hudson). The only women who provide counsel are his seasoned costume designer (Judi Dench) and, through flashback, his Oedipal mother (Sophia Loren). All these women converge on a southern Italy hotel, where Contini and his team go through the motions of pre-production. A wife and mistress must not share the same roof, so when the director’s personal life unravels, his professional life soon follows.
As in Chicago, Marshall frames the musical numbers in a fantastical sound stage, away from the central setting. Such a device stops the characters from spontaneously bursting into song. Except for two numbers song by Day-Lewis himself, Contini’s women sing the songs, and their lyrics illustrate their relationship to the director. The lyrical insight is unoriginal, at least to anyone who has seen movies about womanizers, so Marshall must engage audiences purely on a performance level. Most of the songs are mid-tempo, delivered with a blandly flat, accusatory tone. Some songs, such as Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano” and Fergie‘s “Be Italian” are forgetful, catchy fun. Even then, the lackluster dance sequences, particularly the use of sand in “Be Italian,” feel more like a halfhearted music video than a big screen blockbuster.
Emotion and songwriting prowess converge only once, when Cotillard performs “Take it All” as a wounded wife and burlesque performer. It follows Cotillard, who wowed audiences as Edith Piaf, is the strongest female performer. Others are a disappointment – Kidman’s role amounts to little more than a cameo, and without a punchy script, Dench’s barbs lack bite. Given Day-Lewis’ immersive acting approach, it’s no surprise he sinks into the role of Guido. With greasy hair and confident swagger, he convincingly portrays the Italian lothario, and his sexy accent oozes sinister confidence. It’s only a shame Nine‘s parts cannot add to a greater whole. Not even stunning locations and impressive costumes can save the inert adaptation.
I remember reading that a film director is the last job where dictatorial control is universally tolerated. With Nine, Marshall seeks to illustrate how such power goes astray without long-term vision. The movie begins with Contini facing the press, where he self-depricatingly discusses the tepid reception of his recent films. Should Marshall carefully examine where Chicago succeeded and Nine didn’t, I can imagine him discussing his work in a similar manner. After all, here are two directors who faced high expectations, and ultimately squandered access to strong talent. I only hope Marshall begins similar reflection, and like Contini, transitions from a sharp Italian suit into a humble cardigan.