Rob Marshall’s undeniably flashy and ambitious film version of the Broadway show Nine has exactly the same problem for me that the show itself had when I saw Tommy Tune’s original production in 1982—an almost complete lack of memorable songs. That, I think you’ll agree, is a singular drawback for a musical, though it’s one that surprisingly doesn’t destroy Marshall’s film.
Despite the fact that “Be Italian” is the only tune I can remember a scant few hours after having seen the movie, Nine, as an overall work, still resonates with me on another level. I mayn’t even be able recall the names of the other songs, but I can recall the emotional impact of a few of them as presented by Marshall and as performed by Marion Cotillard and Nicole Kidman, regardless of the “in one ear out the other” quality of the Maury Yeston songs. The songs aren’t bad, merely undistinguished, but the film raises them to another level—at least while they’re on the screen—on several occasions.
For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of Nine, it’s a work grounded in Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical work in the vein of rich fantasy that focuses on a filmmaker tussling with his inability to come up with more than the merest notion of his new film amid his magnificently disordered personal life. In the first instance, what Fellini pulled off was the unthinkable act of turning writer’s block into an epic personal fantasy. Nine follows the concept—it even duplicates certain scenes—and occasionally enlarges on them.
There’s an inherent problem with any such undertaking, however, because it takes one man’s very personal fantasy of his own life and tries to turn it into someone else’s fantasy. While 8 1/2 is about Fellini, Nine is clearly not about Rob Marshall. Something is inevitably lost in the transition. A lot of what is lost, though, is the sense of wry personal humor and the feeling that the filmmaker himself is at a loose end and afraid that maybe he’s a fake. This, in turn, causes Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Guido Contini (the Fellini character) to be more angst-ridden, less fun, and strangely less sympathetic. I don’t blame Day-Lewis—he’s very good in the role as it stands. I blame the inescapable distancing effect.
All in all, the screenplay by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella is a decided improvement over the original play—at least so far as I can recall the 1982 stage production—dispensing with the play’s bouts of narration and adding more dialogue to tell the story. But—as might be expected from the writers in question—some of the more carnival aspects that made it from 8 1/2 to the play are muted. Penélope Cruz’s Carla is never as magnificently preposterous as either the stage version or Sandra Milo in the original film. The downside is that she never gets to become more human as the story progresses.
As filmmaking, the film has a lot going for it. Frankly, I liked it a good deal more than Chicago (2002) as a movie, if only because it’s far less reverential toward its source material. Marshall is more playful here, more cinematically adventurous. The film feels freer, and the editing and intercutting are more stylishly aggressive. That’s an interesting choice for Marshall, since one of the things that was admired in many quarters where Chicago was concerned was that it was quite unlike the kinetic vision of Baz Luhrmann with Moulin Rouge! (2001). While this new effort is still clearly Marshall’s work, it’s also a lot more like Luhrmann’s approach.
At bottom, what you have is a good film of a fairly good show of a brilliant movie. That’s not so bad, all things considered. And the fact that it’s not determined to dumb itself down to win viewers—the film assumes you’re coming to it with a basic knowledge of the idea and its origins—is a big plus. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.