D: Rob Marshall. DP: Dion Beebe. W: Michael Tolkin & Anthony Mingella. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis/Nicole Kidman/Judi Dench/Sophia Loren/Penélope Cruz/Marion Cotillard/Kate Hudson/Stacy Ferguson (Fergie)/Ricky Tognazzi (NOTE: Based on the Tony awarding winning Broadway musical of the same name by Arthur Kopit & Maury Yeston).
Yes, it might be fun to be Italian, but no one will be in line for a new passport after sitting through Rob Marshall’s new musical.
Nine serves as a classic example of how an amazing cast cannot salvage a poor film. Starting with Day-Lewis, who looks startlingly Italian, the audience is given Guido Contini. Guido, Guido, Guido, well hes a man who makes movies, but can’t seem to make his new one! Beyond writer’s block , Day-Lewis’ Guido is unraveling mentally and physically. But, of course, still makes time for extra-marital rendezvouses and a swig of a good drink. Played with captivating subtle command by Day-Lewis, Guido is however not a strong enough character to be the center of the film. So that, regardless of his below par singing voice (which can be legitimized by the fact that in the diegesis he is a filmmaker not a star), Day-Lewis blends into the entire film and cannot hold up Nine.
Surrounding Day-Lewis is a plethora of women, women who sing, women who act, women who dance, yet none who really pull off all three. And although it is refreshing to see a female dominated cast, for the most part the women seem to lack true agency as they are almost all defined by their sexuality and role within Guido’s life. Yet, the best here is Marion Cotillard as Guido’s wife, Luisa. Given lousy songs that either have her being the conservative wife or stripping for attention, Cotillard is still able to give Luisa her moments of breakthrough and raw emotion that make her coupling with Day-Lewis watchable.
Of course, Penélope Cruz’s Carla is just as watchable. As sexy as ever Cruz delights in her few scenes as Guido’s mistress, but it’s nothing less than what is expected. Falling in line as well is Kate Hudson as Vogue reporter Stephanie who has little to do, but pump Guido’s ego. An ego that is supported by star Claudia (Nicole Kidman) who merely has to look statuesque, sing a tune and she has him transfixed. Other than that Sophia Loren merely stands around as Guido’s mother while Judi Dench seems to have taken her role of Lilli, Guido’s costumer, to merely have a little fun.
Joining in on this fun is Stephanie Ferguson or Fergie as she’s popularly known from the band The Black Eyed Peas. Playing Saraghina, a ‘loose’ woman from Guido’s childhood memories, Fergie truly doesn’t have any purpose in Nine other than performing one number. The most memorable song from the musical, maybe partly because it was used in all of the trailers, Fergie sings ‘Be Italian.’ Full of tambourines, chairs and flexible women, the number is what the rest of the film should be, engaging. Although improperly staged and shot, number will be the one audiences remember as the numbers as a whole disappoint, but more on that later.
Visually Marshall works wonders here. As in Chicago, the screen is rich with deliberate use of color, dramatic lighting, and a beautiful contrast between the windy lush Italian countryside and the stark empty sound stage on the film lot. He clearly (unlike myself) has seen Federico Fellinni’s 1963 film 8 1/2 and uses that film to influence the musical. The use of black and white, episodes of Guido’s consciousness and struggle illustrate a knowledge of creative block and frustration. These elements do provide a nice contrast to the musical elements of the film, but are not enough.
Unfortunately, the numbers (the very crux of the musical) tend to fall flat as they are all choreographed and staged with a clear front of stage in mind. Therefore, instead of the camera moving and giving life to the song and dance, the camera merely captures performances that are confined to a proscenium arch. One could interpret this as representing the studio era in which Day-Lewis’ Guido grew up and subsequently might be how he would shoot the numbers. Yet, that argument does not support the numbers that he does not see or imagine. So although the singing, choreography, and costuming is beautiful and entertaining, the film does not bring anything new to the modern musical genre. But instead Nine falters as its numbers are not memorable enough to sustain its story or audience interest.
But, go, decide for yourself, do you want to be Italian?