By Michael Koresky
Dir. Rob Marshall, U.S., The Weinstein Company
Nine opens with the insistent clang of a chime, like the shudder of a church bell. Listen closely, as it’s the death knell for the movie musical. Of course that should be qualified a bit: it’s actually the tenth or eleventh harbinger of doom for the genre that's been heard in various forms since the late 1960s. What makes this one especially resounding is that it comes at the beginning of the latest film by Rob Marshall, who has become the go-to guy for the big-screen song-and-dance film. It should now be clear, with the release of Nine, that Marshall’s ascendance is thanks to pure and simple opportunity; there’s no competition to bolster quality in the movie-musical racket. Hence in recent years we’ve had the slovenly Mamma Mia!, the fitfully dramatized but vocally challenged Sweeney Todd, and now Marshall’s latest, a dead-fish fiasco. Where his movie debut, Chicago, betrayed his cinematic inexperience and his camp-classic follow-up Memoirs of a Geisha laid bare the idiocy beneath the incompetence, Nine, effort number three, adapted from the 1982 musical that was in turn based on Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8 ½, synthesizes all of his worst tendencies into something roiling, monotonous, and ghastly impersonal.
None of this should be surprising since it’s an assembly-line product from the Weinsteins, doing their best to repeat the success of Marshall’s Best Picture-winner for Miramax. And repeat they do: Nine feels wholly redundant, reiterating and magnifying that earlier film’s flaws and transparencies. Most unfortunately, it recreates Chicago’s central conceptual gambit, that the songs are taking place in the characters’ minds—not just a handy, literal explanation for why all the numbers appear on cheap-looking, theatrically lit soundstages, in this case meant to be Cinecittá circa 1965, but also an easy rationale for the imagination-challenged youngsters who may not have been reared on musicals. As with Marshall’s first film, Nine feels it must make excuses for its own musicalness.
Even Chicago defenders admit that most of its stars weren’t entirely convincing as singers and dancers. Martin Walsh’s Oscar-winning editing was in essence a tricky sleight-of-hand in which two-left-footed actors were made to look like elegant hoofers, and many were sufficiently distracted by all the nonsensical cutting to notice that the intricate, athletic choreography of Bob Fosse (in the original 1975 production) and Ann Reinking (in the stunning 1996 Broadway revival) had become a series of amateur, meager moves designed for the limited limbs of Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
As a result of such casting, actors can forfeit their authenticity; stars unused to kicking up their toes suddenly appear to struggle and strain. Their performances become feats rather than chances to disappear into roles, and the media treats them like sideshow attractions (“Step right up and see Zellweger do her best soft shoe!”). Chicago’s abysmal climactic number “Hot Honey Rag,” the Charleston dance-off between the dizzy damsels, was a major bit of blinding subterfuge, with the arms and legs of its principals spliced into oblivion—it must have sent any trained dancers in the audience into spasms. It can be argued that such editing cover-ups (lending actors rhythm they don’t have) are not only excusable but also necessary; where Marshall deserves severe lambasting is in his decision to reduce sequences with actual talented dancers to ramped up successions of quick cuts, in an attempt at mimicking Fosse’s revolutionary cinematic style from Cabaret and All That Jazz without the slightest understanding of how to maintain and honor the contours of the elastic human body on film.
Maury Yeston’s show Nine is more of a vocal than balletic showcase, but the incessant cutting remains: at this point Marshall has chopped up enough bodies that he could conceivably be arrested for murder and mutilation. In Nine this approach reeks even more of desperation, trying to make kinetic and vivid scenes that clearly lay flat on the screen. In the first number by star Daniel Day-Lewis, “Guido’s Song,” as instantly forgettable as its title, Marshall has the actor climbing and crawling over the bare scaffolding of a shadowy, unfinished movie set, and there’s barely any spatial coherence to where he is at any given moment. Then during that naughty number “A Call from the Vatican,” in which a scantily clad Penelope Cruz, as Guido’s saucy mistress Carla, bumps and grinds while straddling a rope and sings mechanically sexual come-hither words, Marshall transitions between Day-Lewis listening on the phone in jarring extreme close-up and Cruz making kitty-cat faces at the camera: both spaces are airless and disorienting. Later, during the cameo number by the Black-Eyed Peas’ Fergie, the show’s signature song, “Be Italian,” Marshall rips off the “Mein Herr” chair choreography from Fosse’s Cabaret, yet by not showing the chorus line of women’s bodies writhing and balancing for more than two seconds at a time, we get no sense of movement. Marshall cuts between long shot, medium shot, close-ups, tight cutaways of red bustiers, and transitions between black-and-white and color—it’s ADD cinema, and it carries no primal musical thrill. And since these performances are meant to exist in an alternate, theatrical reality, Marshall additionally needs to constantly cut back to the “real” space—in the case of “Be Italian” the beaches of Pesaro in flashback to 1926, where Fergie’s Saraghina lustily plays with fistfuls of sand for prepubescent Guido and his pals.
It may come as a surprise that Fergie turns out to be the standout performer in Nine, but the sheer fact that she’s a professional singer gives her a leg up. Her Saraghina may not be sufficiently sultry or convincing as anything other than a grotesque bit of burlesque, but her ability to hit her notes with confidence puts to shame the other women who surround Guido like satellites: Judi Dench, whose guttural rendition of “Folies Bergères” emulates Chita Rivera but ends up closer to Pierce Brosnan; Nicole Kidman, as in “Moulin Rouge” trying to make musical sounds but only emphatically breathing; a ghoulishly croaking Sophia Loren, who doesn’t seem to have sung a note in her entire life, even in the shower; Kate Hudson, doing her tired pixie routine while warbling the newly written “Cinema Italiano,” which contains such bons mots as “I love the dark and handsome guys/with their skinny little ties/Dressin’ mod, lookin’ outta sight!”; Cruz, who’s charismatic in her belting yet who mistakes volume for nuance; and Marion Cotillard, the most competent, full-throated warbler of the bunch, but still a better singer when dubbed by old Edith Piaf recordings.
One might argue that there’s more to these performances than the intermittent song showcases, yet Marshall’s highly superficial reading of Yeston’s already sexually essentialized adaptation of Fellini doesn’t allow any of these women to play much more than sketched types. Because these women all embody different facets of Guido’s consciousness and understanding of Womanhood, we’re meant to accept them on their vaguely symbolic terms, yet all we have between the mother (Loren) and the whore (Fergie) are such non-revelations as the starlet (Kidman), the ditz (Hudson), the sex kitten (Cruz), and the crusty old wiseacre (Dench). Cotillard invests the part of Guido’s wife, Luisa (played with breathtaking intelligence in 8 ½ by Anouk Aimée), with a fair share of pathos, yet in a rancidly sexist development, Marshall and Yeston have given the long-suffering Luisa a new climactic number, “Take It All,” in which she gets to “liberate” herself by performing a gyrating striptease routine; Cotillard seems appropriately bedraggled and embarrassed throughout.
At the center of this maelstrom of madams and mistresses, Daniel Day-Lewis seems to fold in on himself. It’s the rare instance that proves the actor—commonly referred to as “chameleonic,” though he has his share of recurring tics across varied roles—cannot rise above sluggish material. Utterly devoid of Marcello Mastroianni’s impish fire, Day-Lewis’s Guido makes little impression; even worse than the actor’s flat caterwaul is his shaky, cartoonish Italian accent, especially unpersuasive as it emanates from the mouth of such an oddly desiccated caricature. Hobbling from one flashbulb-laden press conference to the next, Guido is meant to be wry in his tiredness, but he merely comes across as tiresome. Needless to say, the details of Guido’s creative block and the finer points of his stalled upcoming film project, “Italia,” remain even more vague here than in 8 ½; yet for Fellini that abstraction was the point, more of an existential malaise than a specific inner combustion. In a film as literal-minded as Nine, this approach simply seems cagey and evasive, leaving at its center a gaping imaginative hole that Day-Lewis can’t fill and making Guido a dull womanizer with no spiritual life. (It also doesn’t help that, in a crippling decision, Marshall has cut the two prettiest songs in the show, “The Bells of Saint Sebastian” and “Nine,” both meant to dig into Guido’s past and childhood demons.)
Which finally brings us to the ultimate, devastating irony of Nine: This is ostensibly a tribute to the gorgeous torture of the artistic process, and it’s made by one of contemporary Hollywood’s preeminent hacks—imagine Death in Venice updated by John Grisham, and you’re on the right track. Though we’re expected to put Fellini’s original out of our minds when watching this update, there are just enough invitations to remember it to make us shudder in acknowledgment (Day-Lewis opens the film with some nonsense, shot handheld, about cinema being a flickering dream). Fellini’s essentially autobiographical tale of artistic crisis has been reappropriated by filmmakers from Bob Fosse (All That Jazz) to Woody Allen (Stardust Memories; even more resonant, Deconstructing Harry), who had valid creative experiences to reference and personal struggles to reconcile. Marshall’s rendition is a facsimile of such expressions: a copy of a spangled copy. There’s no spirit, just hollow, star-struck pomp. When Guido waltzes with his mother’s ghost, we’re not watching a sweet familial reunion, but simply Daniel Day-Lewis and Sophia Loren, two icons caught under a blinding spotlight.