Thursday, December 17, 2009

In Theaters: "Nine"

Rob Marshall’s Nine is a movie that knows exactly how it wants to look, and no clue how it wants to make us feel. It’s designed within an inch of its life—the cinematography is gorgeous, the costumes are impeccable, the choreography energetic—and there are fine performances and entertaining numbers abound. But it doesn’t add up to much of anything; it’s a film of moments rather than a unified whole. That said, there are some great moments in it.

The film is based on the Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit, Mario Fratti, and Maury Yeston, itself based upon Fellini’s classic 8 1/2 (which means, if you take the middle man out of it, Nine is basically a remake of 8 1/2, but with songs). Daniel Day-Lewis steps into Marcello Mastroianni’s shoes as Guido, the famous Italian filmmaker who is watching helplessly as his next picture swings into production, in spite of the fact that he has produced no script (and has no ideas for one). As he tries to work his way out of his “director’s block,” he also must deal with his faltering marriage (due to his many indiscretions) and his memories of the women in his life.

Nine’s primary problem is one of tone. The famous story goes that when Fellini began production on 8 1/2, he put a handwritten note on the camera for his actors to see; it read, “Remember, it’s a comedy.” If one thing is clear in Nine, it’s that director Rob Marshall had no such note on his camera; the whole thing is taken oh-so-seriously, and it’s a problem that begins with his key casting choice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Day-Lewis is woefully miscast as Guido. It’s painful to say, because you’ll find no greater admirer of Day-Lewis’ work; his performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood are among the finest of the decade. But therein lies the problem—is there anything in either of those turns that inspires the thought, “Hey, they should get that guy to front a musical”? He is, perhaps, too good an actor for the role—he’s so studied and focused that he lacks the light touch that the picture so badly needs. While it isn’t written anywhere that the leading man of a musical must be a smiling dandy in the Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire mold (though it sure as hell doesn’t hurt), his is a far more downbeat and navel-gazing interpretation than the material requires. Day-Lewis appears to have bypassed the robust inspiration of Mastroianni’s Guido, and chooses to play him like Hamlet or something.

Some of the musical numbers are enjoyable. Marshall directs with a snazzy zeal for the mood and atmosphere, and the opening overture has a wonderfully operatic feel. Penelope Cruz manages to make an entrance that even tops that of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, performing the slinky “A Call from the Vatican” and stopping the show—she’s never been more sensuous in a film. A flashback scene with Fergie as an earthy prostitute is inventively shot, with tight close-ups and roughly erotic choreography. Judi Dench’s song makes wonderful use of the film’s occasional rich, chewy black-and-white photography. Kate Hudson’s number “Cinema Italiano”, new for the film, is sexy enough, but good lord are the lyrics insipid; it sounds like a second-rate rip-off of Madonna’s “Vogue,” and if hearing it once is bad, hearing it again during the opening credits is unbearable (it’s nominated for a Golden Globe, of course). Indeed, few of the songs are terribly memorable—most, particularly those late in the film, are dull and stagnant (with Marion Cotillard’s divine “Take It Off” a notable exception).

Even the good songs mostly overstay their welcome, and the blackout-revue pacing makes several of them feel arbitrary, as though they’re not taking the movie anywhere in particular. As with Marshall’s previous picture of note, Chicago, the stylistic decision to make the musical numbers fantasies, daydreams, and flights of fancy is intellectually gratifying (busting into song and dance mid-scene simply won’t do in today’s movies), but, as in that film, in some strange way it feels as though he’s apologizing for the musical interludes. The device makes logical sense, but then again, there’s little logical about a great musical—it either plays or it doesn’t, and Marshall keeps hedging his bets.

Still, much of it is worth praising. The screenplay adaptation, by skilled screenwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, has some good lines, and the opening scene (an interview with Guido about how making a film is the process of killing a dream) gets at something real and truthful about the art of moviemaking—though it doesn’t hint at that particular magic again until the pitch-perfect closing scene. Dench gives the picture’s best performance as Guido’s costume designer, and seemingly the only person who will level with him (“You’re such a dope, aren’t you?”); their relationship is endlessly entertaining. Cotillard is wonderful as his wounded, bitter wife, while Cruz gives her bruised mistress dimensions only hinted at in the text. Kidman’s turn is snazzy and good-humored, while the mere appearance of Sophia Loren will make even the most jaded cinephile smile.

Nine is worth seeing—a big, well-crafted musical is still enough of a novelty to warrant at least a cursory glance, and Marshall’s intentions are good, even when he can’t quite execute them. It is a fundamentally flawed picture, but it doesn’t know it, and does some interesting things along the way.

"Nine" opens Friday, December 18 in limited release. It goes wide on Christmas Day.

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