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Rapid Review: Nine

December 30, 2009

Well, it isn't a ten...

One thing is for certain – Nine is certainly not the loneliest number.  If anything, it works overtime trying to remind you just how star-studded it is.  Unfortunately, only a few of those stars have enough wattage to make an impact.

While I enjoyed Rob Marshall’s film version of Chicago, it didn’t exactly make me tremble with anticipation and enjoyment (Moulin Rouge is the only movie musical to date to earn that honor).

When I first heard Marshall was going to helm the film version of Nine (an adaptation of the broadway musical which is itself an adaptation of Fellini’s 8 and 1/2), I was hesitant.  Chicago is a polished and slick movie; Memoirs of a Geisha (Marshall’s other directing credit), on the other hand, is an example of how adaptations can die a slow, painful death.

The circus inside Guido's brain...

The current incarnation of Nine rotated through a number of casting changes on its way to theaters –   first Javier Bardem, then Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido,  Catherine Zeta Jones, then Penelope Cruz as Carla…  One wonders if Nine‘s rehearsals were more like boot camp than campy fun.

On the surface, Nine is the story of Italian film director Guido Contini’s mid-life crisis.   He can’t find inspiration for his new film, so he retreats within his own memories to find a suitable muse.  Here, the audience meets the most important women in Guido’s life.  Each has their own signature song and their own purpose in the grand scheme of Guido’s psychological decline. 

Much has been made by critics that the songs in Nine aren’t “catchy”.  That’s easily explained.  In a traditional musical, the songs serve to advance the plot.  In Nine, they ARE the plot.  While you may not be humming a specific tune while leaving the theater (with the possible exception of Fergie/Seraghina’s “Be Italian” and Kate Hudson/Stephanie’s “Cinema Italiano”), the songs are what tell the story, and at their high point, can be chill-inducing.

Despite being told as a sequence of vignettes that take place in the murky fathoms of  Maestro Contini’s mind, Nine is really all about the ladies.  Marshall has recruited pop stars, Oscar winners and Hollywood legends to play Guido’s emotional harem.  Some fare better than others.

Luisa's lament

Marion Cotillard is the standout star of the film.  She may very well win another Oscar nomination for her earnest, subtle portrayal of Guido’s long-suffering wife Luisa  .  Luisa is Guido’s conscience as well as his soul mate.  It doesn’t hurt that she has the movie’s true tear-jerker of a song, “My Husband Makes Movies”.  Indeed he does – if only Guido could find them as interesting and compelling as his off-screen wife.

Penelope Cruz used to annoy me with her seemingly one-note performances, but she has managed to redeem herself in the past several years by wisely choosing  strong supporting roles.  She was a whiz-bang harridan in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and as Carla, Guido’s overbearing mistress, she is a scene-stealer. 

Nicole Kidman’s career since Moulin Rouge has become about stiff and uninteresting as her face.  As Claudia, Guido’s leading lady, she works her perma-pout as much as she is able without breaking something, but cannot find the emotional range to carry the show’s turning-point ballad, “Unusual Way”.    It’s a shame, since I used to be a Kidman fan.

This must be what kissing an ice sculpture feels like...

Kate Hudson’s role seems much like an afterthought.  Her song, “Cinema Italiano”, walks a strange line between amusing and overwhelming, much like her performance.  Her fashion journalist character’s entrance and exit are jarring, interrupting the flow of the film. 

Judi’s Dench, as Contini’s costume designer and shoulder to cry on, Lili, provides most of the film’s needed comic relief.  She’s wry and self-depricating,  and boy can she belt out a good tune!

Daniel Day-Lewis was Marshall’s second choice for Guido, and it is tough to get used to him playing an oversexed, emotionally unraveling Italian.  Still, it would be  a mistake to say that he is miscast.  Lewis manages to make the character of Guido likeable enough (in his self-created misery), and his singing isn’t half bad, either.

Overall, Nine is neither the musical sensation it was promised to be, nor the critic’s punching bag it has unfortunately become.  It’s a fun escape into another man (in this case, Guido Contini)’s paradise.  Still, you don’t have to rush to catch Nine in the theater.  It won’t lose any of its magnetism on DVD.

Overall Grade:  B+

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