The much-hyped new musical Nine is based on Federico Fellini's classic 8 1/2 and stars six Oscar-winning actors, but critics find it disappointing. It seems the film is crippled by the same problem plaguing its main character: lack of inspiration.
Nine (which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and everywhere on December 25) was adapted from the 1982 musical of the same name, so the movie is actually a film based on a musical based on a film. All three are set in Italy in the 1960s and follow director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he tries to come up with an idea for his next project and deal with his messy personal life. He reflects on the women in his life, including his wife, (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), best friend (Judi Dench), muse (Nicole Kidman), mother (Sophia Loren), a prostitute (Fergie), and (in a role invented for the film) an American Vogue reporter (Kate Hudson).
All the lead actors have won an Oscars (except Kate Hudson, who was nominated), but reviewers say their musical theater abilities are lacking. They criticize the way director Rob Marshall, who previously directed the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, handles the dance numbers, calling the staging unimaginative and that Marshall and his editors use quick cuts meant to obscure the fact that many of the actresses simply cannot dance. Critics also trash the film's pacing: each actress is given a scene or two and a musical number, then it's onto the next star.
Other complaints: The songs, which were written for the musical, aren't particularly catchy, don't move the plot forward, and aren't integrated well into the film's narrative. Fergie and Marion Cotillard escape the critics' wrath for the most part, but Nicole Kidman "looks parched, stretched, and uncomfortable," Penelope Cruz is "alarmingly unsensual," Kate Hudson "may never recover from gyrating her way through the atrocious 'Cinema Italiano,'" and Daniel Day-Lewis "sounds strangely like the Count from Sesame Street" when he sings. The New York Times calls the whole thing a "travesty," and though the basic theme is the same in Nine and Fellini's original, the New Yorker says, "One is forced to ask: who wants to make, or watch, a major Hollywood musical about mental block?" Below, the reviews.
Nine represents director Rob Marshall's second big-screen musical spectacle. His previous effort, Chicago, won an Oscar; although Nine is likely to win its share of praise, it probably won't come close to achieving the same level of acclaim. Although the production numbers are equally impressive, this film is neither as inspired nor as rousing. Part of the problem may be that there are too many high profile actresses vying for the spotlight and each has to be given her moment to shine. Also, despite following its stage inspiration and bringing structure to Fellini's 8 1/2 (the ultimate source material), Nine still suffers at times from a lack of narrative drive and it doesn't have the surreal, dreamlike quality of 8 1/2 to fall back upon.
Unfortunately, each interaction feels like the quickest of flings, allowing us a brief flirtation with a superstar before we move on to the next affair. Everybody gets one or two big scenes, interrupted by an awkwardly-inserted musical number. Some of the actresses are more successful than others - Cruz is playfully sexy, Cotillard soulful, and Fergie impressively earthy - but for the most part, neither the songs nor the choreography are especially memorable. And because the music isn't integrated into the drama, the staging often feels not just theatrical but false.
The film's most remarkable performance is given by Marion Cotillard as Luisa, Guido's long-suffering wife. Her musical number, "My Husband Makes Movies," has more range than any of the others, from coiled calm to unchained ferocity. And Ms. Cotillard's gift for mystery-the art of doing much while seeming to do almost nothing-serves her brilliantly in the movie's best scene, which couples humiliation with insight.
By my score card, Marshall hits more than he misses. Those who hated his music-video editing in Chicago will hate it here. He errs by cutting three great songs ("Getting Tall," "Be On Your Own," "The Bells of St. Sebastian") for three inferior ones. "Cinema Italiano," sung by Hudson, is a tacky, overproduced misfire. He also shortchanges the influence of Catholicism on this man-child, and keeps Guido's nine-year-old alter ego too much in the shadows. Otherwise, his work is visionary and electric. And the script, by Michael Tolkin and the late, much missed Anthony Minghella, is uncommonly witty. Guido begins the film at a press conference telling reporters that to talk about a movie is to spoil its mystery. So I won't intrude except to say that Day-Lewis (who replaced an exhausted Javier Bardem) handles his two songs in high style and acts the role like the maestro he is, even if he looks as Italian as Big Ben.
Kidman — so appealing in Moulin Rouge, despite her hardly being a perfect fit for musicals — just looks parched, stretched and uncomfortable. There's no sensuousness about her; the best she can muster is a kind of shellacked glamour. Cotillard and Fergie give the finest performances here. Cotillard, done up as an Audrey Hepburn-style minx in bangs, makes demureness sexy, and although her musical number may not be the smoothest of the lot, she still brings the right amount of fire to it. Fergie, on the other hand, practically stops the movie. She's fortunate enough to have the show's finest and catchiest number, Be Italian, and after I watched her slink her way through it, I wished — even though I'm an adamant nonsmoker — there was a bed around so I could flop back on it and have a cigarette. Fergie, who gained some weight for this role, is a voluptuous, purely sexual presence, and a deliciously lethal-looking one: She looks as if she could crush boulders between those thighs. Imagine what she could do to Day-Lewis!
The cast members' musical talents are markedly uneven. Day-Lewis' Italian accent works in speech, but when he sings, he sounds strangely like the Count from Sesame Street. The best performers are Cotillard (who won an Oscar portraying Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose) and Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie ), whose powerful voice works well in a small but distinctive part as sensuous Saraghina. Judi Dench, as Contini's costume designer, sings capably in a French accent in her Folies Bergere-inspired number. Cruz does a steamy song and dance, but her acting is strangely caricatured. Kate Hudson appears in over her head in her extravagant musical sequence, and Sophia Loren talk-sings her role.
True, Fellini provides a tough point of comparison for anyone, but maybe Nine should have stayed on the stage, where it could benefit from having a medium all to itself. In Nine, director Rob Marshall, who fared much better with Chicago, does a pretty good job of aping the look and feel of the film's inspiration in the non-musical sequences, but comes up curiously short in the largely imaginative musical numbers. No scene in which Penélope Cruz writhes around in her underwear can be called unsexy, but Cruz's big number remains alarmingly unsensual in spite of all the flesh on display. That Maury Yeston's songs simply aren't that memorable doesn't help.
To follow in the footsteps of Mastroianni is no enviable task, and Daniel Day-Lewis, adroit as ever, approaches it by changing the steps. Where his predecessor lounged and strolled, or dipped into a clownish stagger, we find Day-Lewis, leaner in physique, forever on the fast and wolfish prowl-hands in pockets, shoulders forward, not pushing his sunglasses cutely up and down his nose, as Mastroianni did, but keeping them on full beam, like the Devil's headlights. He belongs, however, in a more focussed movie; this one feels too sluggish for his predations...
The women, however, are spirited and sexy. Cruz performs a mock bump-and-grind with real heat, and Fergie, as an oh-so-Fellini-esque beach drifter, turns herself into a wild electric siren. If only the lyrics weren't so awful! Cotillard, a lovely presence, is martyred by having to sing such gems as ''My husband makes movies/To make them he lives a kind of dream/In which his actions aren't always what they seem!'' No wonder Day-Lewis looks like he's having stomach trouble. He spends most of Nine as a haunted spectator, and you want to tell the guy to lighten up. The movie Guido is trying to dream doesn't look like much fun, and neither is Nine.
Nicole Kidman as Guido's "muse" and Kate Hudson as an on-the-make American journalist get to do little. Judi Dench is wonderful and wise as Guido's costume designer-cum-therapist and, fortunately, is not asked to do much in terms of singing and dancing. Fergie is kind of fun as a childhood fantasy of sexuality — in the original film, the whore is fat and slovenly. Cruz and Cotillard get real characters to play, but they're the stuff of bad soap opera. Then there's Day-Lewis. He is an incredibly sexy man and performs all the right moves. The problem is, he keeps performing those same moves over and over, so one experiences not so much artistic angst but a guy trying to sober up from a two-week binge. Sporting a scruffy beard and running a hand through long hair only goes so far.
And while we're filling the suggestion box. . . . Because Nine is a musical, it would help if your leading man could sing, and I don't mean carry a tune, but actually flex some vocal muscle. Again, love Daniel Day-Lewis, excellent racing shirtless through the forest, but a song-and-dance man he is not.
Nine is one of those films that couldn't look better on paper — so many Oscar, Tony and Grammy winners involved that the production should have literally glittered with all that gold. But in the end, nothing adds up. Perhaps "Zero" would have been a better name.
Nine might at least have been a guiltily pleasurable burlesque, were Marshall not so intent on turning all his grande dames into vamped-up grotesques. While Fergie emerges relatively unscathed, in part because her role-the feral prostitute Saraghina, from whom the chaste young Guido learns the facts of life-is meant to be a vamped-up grotesque, poor Hudson (as an enterprising Vogue reporter, dumbed down from the play's Cahiers du cinéma film critic) may never recover from gyrating her way through the atrocious "Cinema Italiano," a number that Marshall stages as something like Night of the Living Versace Runway Show. Wisely keeping her distance, Cotillard mostly lurks along the sidelines projecting a wounded visage, before finally stepping into the spotlight for the movie's single moment of emotional sincerity.
Penelope Cruz wriggling around in her underwear - the heavily edited result cannot quite be called dancing - in the best number, "A Call From the Vatican," is about as good as it's going to get in this faux-Fosse eyesore. Maury Yeston's mediocre, imitation-Kander-and-Ebb 1982 Broadway musical has been further edited and updated to suit the vocal limitations of its Weinstein-gerrymandered cast. Or, in the case of Kate Hudson as a journalist for American Vogue who vaguely tries to seduce our hero, the character and her awful number "Cinema Italiano" (in badly lit black-and-white) are interpolations that could be cut without changing the movie one whit.
Stacy Ferguson, known to pop-music fans as Fergie, is Saraghina, the village prostitute who provides the boy Guido with a glimpse of forbidden pleasures. Nice for him. The rest of us watch Ms. Ferguson stomp and gyrate through a number called "Be Italian," which, like so much else in Nine, resembles a spread in a Victoria's Secret catalog, only less tasteful. Ms. Hudson, for her part, struts through an embarrassing hymn to "Cinema Italiano" - with inane lyrics about "hip coffee bars" and Guido's "neo-realism" - that recalls not Visconti or Antonioni (or even the Italian sex farces of the 1970s) but rather those lubricious Berlusconi-esque variety shows that baffle and titillate visitors from other countries who turn on their hotel-room television sets. Those spectacles at least come by their sleaze honestly. "Nine" dresses up its coarseness in bogus prestige, which both kills the fun and exposes an emptiness at the project's heart - a fatal lack of inspiration. The fear of such a void is what animates the Guido character played by Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½, a man whose vanity, tenderness and narcissism mirrored Fellini's own, and whose anxiety at the prospect of failing as an artist and a man made him a vivid and credible hero. That psychological dimension is missing from Nine, which never finds a way to communicate either the romantic ardor or the artistic passion that would make Mr. Day-Lewis's Guido interesting.