What went nearly brilliantly for director Rob Marshall in his adaptation of the Broadway musical CHICAGO seven years ago somehow misses the mark, albeit with many familiar elements, in this season’s NINE. As with CHICAGO, Marshall again mines Broadway with NINE, presenting a similarly-staged musical with fantasy numbers interspersed throughout the relatively drab world of the story. In CHICAGO, impeccable casting, seamless intercutting between the fantasy and reality, and perfectly executed production numbers made for a thoroughly entertaining cinematic experience. This is only true in a relatively small percentage of NINE’s material.
One curiosity is Marshall’s casting choices. Daniel Day-Lewis, who has been flawlessly cast throughout his unparalleled 25-year career, is oddly miscast here as an egocentric Italian movie director in 1965 whose best projects are seemingly behind him. Day-Lewis is unlikeable as Guido Contini, a 50-ish maestro making his badly unorganized opus called Italia amid the chaos of numerous love interests, mistresses, fetching producers, and a hounding media. Unlikeability has never previously been a detriment in Day-Lewis’ career – just see GANGS OF NEW YORK and THERE WILL BE BLOOD for examples. But Contini is also inaccessible as a lead character, and Day-Lewis never opens him up.
Ditto for other key choices in the film. Backfiring is the idea of casting non-musical performers in what should have been a rollicking musical. Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, and Nicole Kidman are wonderful performers, especially when well-placed, but in their musical production numbers, they fall somewhat flat. Hudson is wholly out-of-place as an American journalist. She tries hard in her bombastic fantasy production number, but her lack of natural musical talent becomes evident despite her earnestness to deliver. Dench is a world-class actress, but her “reality” moments as a costume designer on Contini’s film go down much easier than her attempt at a diva in a song about her past days in the Folies Bergere. Kidman is doing her MOULIN ROUGE bit with her song and holds her own but is also exposed as a trained rather than natural songstress. This is especially evident when these women go against Fergie (from the nascent band Black Eyed Peas) who explosively belts out her tune despite being strangely shot with what seemed like long lenses from a distance (with what also appeared like an inferior makeup approach to her look). Of course, all of these women pale in comparison to the screen presence and surprising musical flair of Marion Cotillard. Her work stands out head and shoulders above her female co-stars. Even a very sexy over-the-top number by a magnetic Penelope Cruz cannot outdo Cotillard’s unforgettable scenes in both the interweaving fantasy and reality segments.
When she sings a melancholy tune about her husband Contini and his life as a director, it represents the likely most powerful moment in the film. Sophia Loren makes an enjoyable extended cameo as Contini’s mother. At 75, she is still one of the natural beauties of the past century of any race, ethnicity or nationality. [youtube]y_5_lzags3I[/youtube]
In addition to some casting misjudgments, Marshall’s decisions go astray in other areas. His blocking and shooting of Day-Lewis are regularly frustrating as we are routinely looking down into the actor’s forehead with his chin tucked in. Also, the “rules” of when the fantasy aspects interject themselves into the story are not nearly as clear as in CHICAGO. Here, we are often unsure if the fantasy is purely Contini’s as an adult or boy, as is usually the case, or that of other characters who come and go through the proceedings. Some production design choices, as when we are on the Cinecitta sets where Contini’s movie is to be filmed, or in a purely imagined world, are often unclear.
All of this is not for lack of trying; Marshall is often aiming towards the same impacting storytelling and musical set pieces that he achieved so well in CHICAGO. However, only a handful from the totality are well worth remembering in NINE.
Based on Federico Fellini’s classic 1963 autobiographical 8 1/2, NINE was a notable Broadway musical in 1982. Yet, NINE the 2009 movie fails to resonate beyond a modestly enjoyable moviegoing experience. Which is all of a crime as it could have been so much more, especially in the hands of a choreographer-director who won big in similar territory his last time out with such material.