- Directed by Rob Marshall
- Written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella
- Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz
- Classification: PG
Nine , the new film from Chicago director Rob Marshall, is unassuming only in its title. Stuffed with Oscar-winning stars and elaborately staged production numbers, it comes from a high-pedigree lineage: It's based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical, which was in turn based on 81/2, Federico Fellini's 1963 classic film about the absurdities of moviemaking.
Fellini's film starred Marcello Mastroianni as the director's creatively blocked surrogate, contemplating his youth, his womanizing and his childhood. Fellini's self-reflective movie has inspired a number of other films, most notably Bob Fosse's All That Jazz and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories.
Nine takes the basic plot from Fellini, though the screenplay is credited to Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, based on Arthur Kopit's book for the stage musical. The story follows Guido Contini, a 50ish Italian director who, after illustrious beginnings, has recently directed only flops. He's about to shoot a movie, but has no script, and in a panic, finds himself obsessing about the women in his life.
Directed by Rob Marshall, Nine stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz.
The movie's first big scene in Rome's Cinecitta film studios, where Fellini worked, sees the various women in Contini's life emerging onto an unfinished set trilling "la la la" as they circle him. As the film progresses, each woman gets a single production number - except for Marion Cotillard, as Guido's long-suffering wife, Luisa, who gets two.
The other women include his married mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz); his film star and muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman); his costume designer (Judi Dench); and an American fashion journalist, Stephanie (Kate Hudson). In flashbacks, Guido also recalls a prostitute from his youth, Saraghina (Stacy Ferguson, or Fergie of Black Eyed Peas); and his judgmental mother (Sophia Loren, looking very much like a wax statue of herself).
Ultimately, there's no escaping that this is very much a case of mediocrity's tribute to genius. Marshall's directorial style includes jumping haphazardly between colour and black-and-white, with lots of edits, pans, zooms and crosscutting that turn the dance numbers into jigsaw puzzles. For all the bustiers and stockings, crotch thrusts and breast shakes, this all feels too anxiously busy to be erotic.
All the performers are game but, with the exception of Fergie and Kidman, no more than competent as singers. The songs are memorable only in the awfulness of their lyrics. Sings Luisa, "My husband makes movies. To make them, he makes himself obsessed. He goes for weeks on end without a bit of rest. No other way can he achieve his level best."
Fergie gets the biggest and loudest number, called Be Italian . Cruz lounges in her pretty lingerie and waves her derrière while cooing to Guido in A Call from the Vatican . Dench - as Guido's confidant, the warmest presence in the film - shakes it to a bit of quaint, generic razzmatazz called Folies Bergére.
The most grating may be Hudson, gyrating in a sparkly mini-dress and singing a new song, a sub-Madonna, pungent slice of formaggio called Cinema Italiano , with the lyrics "I feel my body chill gives me a special thrill each time I see that Guido neo-realism."
The movie improves in the scenes when Guido climbs into his blue Alfa Romeo and takes a spin out of Rome down the coast to a spa. Day-Lewis - who can carry a tune, but no more - at least looks great: lean and feral in his black Italian sports jacket and shades. The acerbic irony of Mastroianni's original performance is missing, but at least Day-Lewis's bemused, puckish expression suggests a man who finds real life a messy substitute for the relative coherence of the movies.
Only in its second half does the film start to show a suggestion of coherence. When his mistress attempts suicide, when his muse rejects him, when the priests of his youth reveal themselves to be just more movie fans, Guido has to face himself, or, more precisely, his wife.
Instead, Cotillard, who won her Oscar as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose , emerges from the shadows and gives Nine some emotional substance. Even more to her credit, she does so in spite of Marshall's crude staging, which includes an overedited black-and-white striptease number where she's being grabbed at by various men.
With her eyes and voice alone, Cotillard communicates the ache and humiliation of the spurned spouse, and the movie's sole slender idea: Behind every genius, there's someone suffering for his art.