Boring 'Nine' Is a Zero
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
As a musical, Rob Marshall's "Nine" has all the punch and style of upscale window-dressing. Story line and lyrics are banal, brim full of sophomoric notions about artists, creativity and neurosis. The musical numbers lumber into motion like massive machinery, animating platoons of "dolls" who bellow and prance without reference to one another or any overarching choreographic vision.
Loud, vulgar, serving mostly as a string of strip shows to bare a womanizing film director's sexual fantasies or the souls of his long-suffering ladies, "Nine," as assembled, not directed, by Marshall, only pretends to have a narrative arc. The thing simply bounces metronomically from "real life" to production number and back again, then compounds the insult by plucking a redemptive epilogue out of the ether.
Many iterations distant from Fellini's classic "8 1/2" (1963) and light years away from the steam heat of Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1979), this hollow offering exemplifies the abyss between art and glitzy kitsch. What these movies (along with the two Broadway versions of "Nine") have in common is an aging "maestro" bedeviled by too many women and physically or spiritually or psychologically or creatively unable to get on with his work.
Set in 1965 in and about the famed Cinecittà Studios where Fellini thrived, "Nine" focuses on Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a much-admired director who finds himself without script or even an idea for a movie a week before shooting starts. He's plagued by his colleagues, the press, and a gallery of females (mistress, wife, costumier, muse, mother, a whore remembered from childhood) who have apparently distracted him from finding and freeing his inner child. (I'm not kidding.)
Those who take pleasure in whining about Day-Lewis' acting as mannered and calculating will find lots of ammunition here. Having put his considerable talent at the service of nothing, he apes an ad out of GQ: unshaven, chain-smoking, androgynous, silky voiced, soulless. Day-Lewis rides this angsty pose nonstop to the end, when, of course, that ludicrous ending requires instant adjustments.
Leaping about, singing his omnivorous appetite for life and art, then feverishly fantasizing his mistress (Penélope Cruz) in strenuous bump and grind ("A Call From the Vatican"), blowing off his saintly wife (Marion Cotillard), whining every two seconds or so about his inability to come up with a movie -- who is this pretentious jerk and why should we care about his woes?
Day-Lewis has never been great at projecting lust (he's far too cerebral a lover), and it's real hard to credit him, or his character, getting all heated up by sex kittens crawling about with their butts up and boobs out. Better to have cast Antonio Banderas, who starred in the latest Broadway revival of "Nine"; his talent would have been equal to this phony-baloney material. Day-Lewis would be more at home in the austere environs of Ingmar Bergman's female-dominated movieworlds.
Now about the women of "Nine," each of whom gets a self-explanatory song. Fellini, for all his pretensions, possessed genuine superstitious faith in females as vessels of the sacred and the profane. In Saraghina, the great, slovenly whore he encountered on the beach as a child, Fellini saw a pagan goddess, a devouring yet creative force.
Any signs of that energizing terror in "Nine," any dangerous sparks of electric tension between the male artist who imagines and the women who are imagined? Not in this cliché-ridden, girlie-magazine melodrama. Marshall's Saraghina is Fergie in a torn dress, frozen in the iconic pose of a fat cat in heat. Cutting to color and a huge stage, she and a bunch of artfully disheveled clones spread their legs, throw sand, slam chairs and belt out the carpe-diem ballad "Be Italian." They haven't got a clue.
Even when little Guido gets caned by a priest in front of his madonna mom (Sophia Loren, trotted out as waxworks eye candy), an opportunity for a kid's sexual wires to get seriously crossed if there ever was one, Marshall doesn't have the chops to mine any psychopathis sexualis out of the scene. So when Loren croons, "You will always be mine," to her conflicted son, there's no edge of perversity, just greeting-card sentiment.
In "My Husband Makes Movies," Cotillard manages to bring a soupçon of soulfulness to her sad lament that she will always play second fiddle to Guido's art. Hard to be genuinely moved, with absolutely no evidence of Guido's special talent as filmmaker. By the time Luisa belts out "Take It All" while stripping down in a bar full of rough trade as Guido watches, it's clear that character is just a convenience of the moment in this movie, subject to radical alteration at any time.
Interestingly, it's Cruz and Nicole Kidman who manage to generate a couple of transiently real and moving moments out of this music-video pastiche. Directing his emotionally vulnerable mistress even in the bedroom, Guido orders her to, "Be savage." Scrooching her lips together, Carla gives him a little girl's guess at what a wild thing might look like.
In contrast, Kidman, playing the gifted actress who flawlessly acts out Guido's fantasies onscreen, resists the cookie cutter her director would impose on her. Told that she'll play the part of the woman behind the throne in Guido's new film, she rips off her sex-goddess wig and just walks away: "I'd rather be the man!" All the authority Kidman brought to her ruthless artist role in "The Hours" rings out in that declaration of independence.
"Nine" is the kind of movie that just can't pass up the chance for Marshall's idea of an artist to slip into a melodramatic pose and, apropos his filmmaking career, quote Shakespeare: It's all "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." That, my friends, pretty much sums up this silly, formless spectacle. For all its razzle-dazzle and brouhaha, "Nine" is a bore, fading from memory almost instantly.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.