I have no doubt that director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has a deep appreciation for Italian master Federico Fellini and his 1963 film, 8 , which serves as the source material (by way of a Broadway adaptation) for Marshall's new film Nine. Marshall's fluid camera and the way characters pop into frame at the same time they pop into his lead's libidinous mind suggests that Marshall has done his homework. Why, then, does this remake-with-songs fall so terribly flat?
It has to do with two fundamental problems at the heart of Nine, both of which are born out of cynicism: The script, rewritten by the late Anthony Minghella, is a rigid and lifeless conventionality tool, whereas 8 thrived on chaos and flights of fancy; and the structure of Nine separates the book from the music such that the elaborate production numbers exist in an entirely different universe from the actual movie.
To backtrack a bit, Nine, as did 8 , concerns a thinly veiled Fellini stand-in, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a famous Italian director who can't seem to work up the energy to care about his next film. The sets are built, the costumes designed, but Contini hasn't even set forth a basic story or characters. While the film world and his increasingly frustrated crew await his inspiration, Contini revisits the women of his past and present ' his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman), his production designer (Judi Dench), his mother (Sophia Loren) and an intimidating prostitute (Fergie) ' and the various ways he's let them all down. They haunt him, entice him, distract him and enable his loosening grip on reality.
In Fellini's film, all of these elements blend together in a mélange of beautiful madness, but here they serve as act breaks out of a Robert McKee book. Cotillard's Luisa Contini is not her own woman; she's the function of two melodramatic break-up scenes. Likewise Cruz's Carla, who exists only to reinforce the consequences of Contini's flexible morality.
Throughout the film, these beautiful Hollywood actresses are not a part of the film itself so much as figures in a parade of 'show-stoppers.â?� With the exception of Dench, who almost saves the thing by herself, these are not actors selected for their integrity to the characters. Instead, it feels like they were the actors with good agents. They get their money's worth ' the solos are exquisitely designed, though only Fergie, against all odds, truly gives a goosebump-inducing performance.
However, the biggest detriment to Marshall's work is his continued insistence on segregating the music from the film. Chicago's numbers existed in another world from the movie as well, but that was a brilliant turn of necessity: The musical was all in Renée Zellweger's head while the world around her was one of stark realism. But Guido Contini's Italian-spa-and-film-sets world lends itself marvelously to characters breaking into song without being banished to a warehouse fantasia to do so. Characters in musicals sing their emotions because they can't express them otherwise. Characters in Nine are perfectly capable of self-expression, thus rendering their songs redundant.
Does Marshall refuse to believe that modern audiences can accept a real world in which people sing their feelings at a time when Once, Enchanted, Hairspray, Glee, Sweeney Todd and the High School Musicals have captured the hearts of a young film-going generation? At Guido's worst, he at least never stops believing in his medium. I'm not sure the same can be said of Rob Marshall.