In ‘Nine,’ the numbers don’t add up
Rob Marshall’s first musical since “Chicago’’ is “Nine.’’ It’s based on a 1982 Tony-winning show, which was based on “8 1/2,’’ Federico Fellini’s iconic 47-year-old ode to himself and to Italian decadence. Marshall’s movie is the Olive Garden version. You can easily imagine the movie’s catchiest song, “Be Italian,’’ used to sell bowls of spaghetti.
While “Chicago’’ won the best-picture Oscar and rekindled enthusiasm for movie musicals, “Nine’’ is full of the same mistakes Marshall made then. The numbers are locked away from the rest of the narrative action, so the songs exist only in a kind of secret-fantasy thought bubble. The editing murders all the logic of the choreography. The camera shoots too many sequences from dubious positions: “Be Italian,’’ featuring the big-throated belter Fergie and a score of scantily clad dancers, has been photographed from behind an assortment of props (is that a branch?). It’s like having somebody in a huge hat sit right down in front of you, only worse: The director put that guy there.
Loosely adapted by Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin, “Nine’’ is meant to be a voluptuous tribute to one heterosexual moviemaker’s voracious appetite for women. As played by a thin, cerebral Daniel Day-Lewis, he seems like a vegetarian to me. His character, a famed filmmaker named Guido Contini, is coming off a critical and commercial flop. He’s already holding press conferences for his highly anticipated follow-up, which has no script. It does have a theme: “Italia’’ - “as a myth, as a woman, as a dream,’’ or something to that effect. The movie is full of risible pontifications about the nature of art but falls well short of capturing the angst of creative frustration.
Guido leaves the paparazzi of Rome for a peaceful villa to write but still has to juggle the women in both his daily life and his memories. His amorous mistress (Penélope Cruz) shows up desperate for more of him than she can have. His long-suffering wife (Marion Cotillard) wants more of him, too. His costume designer (Judi Dench) contributes her admittedly valuable two cents. His muse (Nicole Kidman) refuses to begin shooting until she has a script to read. Fergie shows up, in a flashback, as the beachcombing hooker who introduced young Guido and his friends to the joys of - let me see, rubbing sand on your breasts? And once or twice a nicely upholstered Sophia Loren appears, as Guido’s late mother, to offer posthumous advice.
Most of the women pull into view, strut their stuff, then more or less vanish. This was essentially true of the show as well. But in the 2003 Broadway revival, there was intensity in the actors playing these roles - anger, fire, lust, exasperation, bitterness - which is missing from this movie.
A musical needs stars who want to knock you out. Jane Krakowski, who played Cruz’s part in the revival, probably isn’t a star because she’s always so needily on. That’s a nerdy theater trait that movie stars are too cool for. But on stage the need to wow is exciting. Catherine Zeta-Jones was hungry that way in “Chicago,’’ and she was the best thing in the movie. In this film of “Nine,’’ the prevailing cool is lethal.
Numbers that should bring down the house just feel banal. Cruz is required to literalize an obscene phone call, thrusting her butt at the camera and massaging her crotch, all while wearing lingerie and sitting in a swing. Later, Cotillard gives us a striptease version of Cruz’s burlesque. For an actor, this might be liberating - or at least fun. At the movies, sequences like these are enticing but familiar, like the Oscar winners’ edition of one of those Victoria’s Secret specials.
No one fares as badly as Kate Hudson. She plays a writer for a fashion magazine who comes on to Guido. The punishment for her aggression is the film’s new song by the original musical’s creator, Maury Yeston. It’s a brightly lit horns-and go-go number called “Cinema Italiano,’’ and Hudson, channeling both “Austin Powers’’ and her mother’s “Laugh-In’’ years, can’t seem to keep up with the rush of embarrassing lyrics (“Those scenes I love to see/ from Guido’s POV!’’) or nail the swinging choreography.
Pieces of the movie work. Dench, in both speech and song, is wonderful. The stick-on French accent she uses in her cabaret number (she gives her r’s a good Eartha Kitt roll) has all the humor and vitality you could ask for. Kidman has a dreary song that’s poorly staged (not the back of her head again, please), but she also gets to speak with a womanly wisdom I had never heard from her. And Cruz gives the movie’s most complete performance, trading the spiteful envy of being the other woman for genuine sadness.
She’s so good you forget the man sharing her scenes. Day-Lewis does get in a decent workout. He supplies Guido with intellect, cunning, and great blasts of nervous energy. However, what’s missing from the performance - and from the entire movie - is sex. Marcello Mastroianni starred for Fellini. Raul Julia originated the part on Broadway, and Antonio Banderas starred in the revival. Those are men who smolder. I’m sure it was a thrill to get Day-Lewis to commit to this part, and should someone want to film another “Sweeney Todd,’’ he’s probably your man. But a role about a slutty moviemaker needs a libidinous star.
The glamour is authentic, if complacently so. Marshall has assembled all these great stars and makes them work, but he doesn’t build much entertainment from all their effort. The script thins out the psychological tether that binds Guido to the women in his life - the closest we get is the stunning fact that Guido’s mistress (Cruz) is a younger version of his mother (Loren). And only about half the show’s songs are used, so the ones that are here become less storytelling devices and more performance platforms. The way in which the women arrive and then more or less disappear is like the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair: Each star has a wow photo, the movie turns the page, and it’s on to the next.
Indeed, the movie ends by juxtaposing glossy clips with black-and-white footage from the film’s rehearsals, so we see, for instance, a sweaty Dame Judi taking a breather. All that’s missing is an editor’s letter saying “See you at the Oscars.’’ Not if we’re lucky.