Nine (2009): Rob Marshall’s Feeble Attempt to Transfer Broadway Musical

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In an era in which few musical movies are being made, Rob Marshall, the director of “Nine,” deserves A for ambition and effort but B+ for execution and effect. Marshall tries to integrate story, imagery and music into one seamless fabric but the end result is an uneven spectacle, a stylized collage of dazzling sights and sounds that relies too much on montage and melodrama at the expense of offering joy, wit, and fun, qualities we expect from our best musicals.
The film benefits from a stellar cast, headed by Daniel Day Lewis as Guido Contini, the creatively and emotionally blocked Italian filmmaker, which includes some of the most beautiful and talented women working today: Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench.  Just watching this ensemble parade in sexy costumes and interact in seductive ways with Day-Lewis makes the movie alluring and easier on the eyes.
To be fair, Marshall faced bigger challenges in adapting the Broadway musical “Nine,” inspired by Fellini’s seminal “81/2,” than he had faced in 2002, while transferring to the screen the stage production of “Chicago,” which swept that year’s Oscars, including Best Picture.
But the movie’s visual conception, narrative strategy, and emotional tone are problematic, and as such are likely to divide critics and limit the appeal of “Nine” to savvy, upscale, older audiences in urban centers, who are familiar with the source materials.  For those familiar with film studies and academic jargon, Marshall has opted for excessive montage (sort of MTV style) over subtle and witty mise-en-scene.  To use an analogy from classic Hollywood cinema, Marshall follows more in the footsteps of Busby Berkeley than in those of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers RKO musicals, and Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen in their MGM films. 
Moreover, unlike “Chicago,” in which the music was seductive and melodic in its own right, the score of “Nine,” in both the stage and screen version, is not as memorable, smooth, or consistent. There are good numbers, to be sure, but only one or two songs, such as “Be Italian,” have become popular hits.
It’s noteworthy that, despite winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and four other kudos (competing against Michael Bennett’s “Dreamgirls”), “Nine” enjoyed a reasonable but not spectacular run on Broadway, with 729 performances (less than two years).  In 2003, the production received an artistically acclaimed revival, with Antonio Banderas in the lead.
As is known, Tommy Tune’s innovative musical sensation was inspired by Fellini’s 1963 movie “81/2,” which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar.  And now it comes full circle back to the screen, re-invented as a richly dense tapestry.  Based on the book by Arthur L. Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti, the sharply observed screenplay is written by Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) and Anthony Minghella, the writer-director of “The English Patient,” who paid tribute to Italy in his supremely mounted “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” (“Nine” is dedicated to the memory of Minghella). 
Some context is in order: Fellini’s celebrated masterpiece was a dense, complex, self-reflexive work rich in ideas and images. Quintessentially postmodern, “81/2” represented a radical break with traditions of the past, particularly Rossellini’s (and Italian) neo-realism, to which Fellini subscribed in the first decade of his career. Just as Fellini’s previous masterpiece, the stunning “La Dolce Vita” (1960) confirmed popular notions about the new international café society, “81/2” confirmed prevalent ideas about self-absorbed artistic geniuses and the creative process.
At the peak of his career, Marcello Mastroianni played Guido, an egocentric director who behaves as if he were the center of the universe. Referred to as the maestro, he’s the creator on whose word everything waits, the man sought after by every person. At this juncture of his career, coming off from a huge hit, Guido can do anything he wants but the endless possibilities only confuse him, causing a stifling creative block.
Reprising Mastroianni’s role in the Italian film and Raul Julia in the 1982 production, Day-Lewis is well cast as Guido, the world-famous movie director who goes through mid-life crisis, searching for inspiration and salvation amidst his free fall (one inch away from nervous breakdown).   Renowned for his brilliant moviemaking and desired by many, Guido is about to kick off production on his highly anticipated ninth picture, “Italia,” when suddenly the bottom drops out of his creative powers and his fervid love life, with both domains unraveling out of control at the same time. 
Guido is surrounded by a group of astonishing women, including his devoted wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), his tempting and demanding married mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), his creative muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer and confidante Lilli (Judi Dench), the flirty American journalist from Vogue Stephanie (Kate Hudson), the prostitute from his childhood Saraghina (Stacy Ferguson) who initiated him into sex, and his beloved dotting Mamma (Sophia Loren).
Fellini’s daringly surreal, magical tale about a director’s creative and moral crisis, became one of the most analyzed and influential movies in history. Overflowing with a carnival of imagery fused from one man’s tantalizing memories, dreams, flights of fancy, nostalgia, humor and demons, it became one of the first films that exposed the inner life–egotism, madness, and wonder–of the modern human condition. Along with Fellini’s other movies, especially “La Dolce Vita,” “81/2” inspired filmmakers make surreal, sensual, introspective movies. (See end note).
Marshall unfolds the drama of an artist’s mid-life crisis in his own language, forged out of emotions, musical number, kinetic cinematography, and fast-paced editing, trying to turn the inner lives of Guido and the women who inspire him into a fantasy spectacle. “Nine” builds up toward the cathartic moment, when Guido must overcome his personal demons and call “Action!”
As a musical movie, “Nine” suffers from lack of dramatic or emotional continuity, a result of several reasons. First, unlike “Chicago,” some of the songs are not well integrated into the narrative, and occasionally bring the narrative flow to a halt. Second, and more important, there are too many cuts between interiors and exteriors, too many flashbacks and flash forwards from Guido’s past to the present, too many shifts from black-and-white to color, respectively.
However, once you accept Marhsall’s approach, and the fact that he views the story as a melodrama rather than as a witty satire, marked by self-deprecating humor (as Fellini’s movie was), the film offers many pleasures, based on the dazzling moments and erotic images in some of the musical numbers.
The overture (“Belle Donne”) introduces the gorgeous women in Gudio’s life in a big movie set. The historical Stage 5 at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios is lit up, literally and symbolically by Guido’s evocative desires and memories, transforming his life into dynamic and expansive musical fantasies.
Day-Lewis then delivers “Guido’s Song,” which sets the tone for the rest of the narrative, and deals with its major issues, art, dreams, love, emotional exhilaration, creative inspiration. The actor also has the next-to-last number, “I Can’t Make This Movie.”
In between these bracketing numbers, each of the women has one song, but the singing and visual presentation is uneven. As Saraghina, the singer Fergie has the most melodic and memorable song, “Be Italian,” which she renders in a rousing way.
Of all the women, Marion Cotillard (Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose”) comes across the best, a cumulative result of the writing, her sizeable part, the fact that she has two major songs, “My Husband Makes Movies,” a lament of a frustrated wife who knows her father’s obsession with work and other women, and “Take It All.” Cotillars, who should be placed in the leading category for Oscar considerations, deserves credit for her luminous screen presence and quite, understated performance. She may be the only femme who offers a respectable match to the woman who had played her role in Fellini’s movie, Anouk Aimee (who became internationally famous several years later in “A Man and a Woman”).
As Claudia, Nicole Kidman sings “Unusual Way,” but her performance is lukewarm, a possible function of the writing and direction. Watching Kidman brings vivid memories of the luminous Claudia Cardinale in Fellini’s movie.
The rest of the women are decent, but no much more, perhaps because they are not given much to do, say, or sing. As Carla, Guido’s married, insatiably lusty mistress, Penelope Cruz delivers well the song, “A Call from the Vatican,” though later, she is featured in one of the film’s weakest and most melodramatic scenes.
It is frustrating (to me) to see so little of Sophia Loren, who seldom acts anymore. As Guido’s Mamma, she delivers the song “Guarda la Luna,” which suggests that she still treating her middle-aged son as her little boy.
Marshall’s strategy is most vividly illustrated in two numbers, “Folies Bergere,” an ode to French cabaret introduced by Lilli, and “Cinema Italiano,” sung by Kate Hudson, as the American flirtatious journalist. Both numbers rely excessively on montages, made up of brief images meant to illustrate the glamour of Italian lifestyle in the 1960s, as chronicled in the work of Fellini and other directors. 
End Note
Many filmmakers have paid homage to “81/2” in their own distinctive ways. Bob Fosse spun his own life into the 1982 surreal fabric of “All That Jazz,” a dance-driven story of a brilliant, self-destructive choreographer trying to come to grips with his past, his women and his mortality; best number was an open heart surgery. Woody Allen took a different approach in 1980 with “Stardust Memories,” in which he starred as a disillusioned filmmaker plagued by hallucinations and alien visitations, as he confronts the meaning of his work and the memories of his loves.
Guido Contini – Daniel Day-Lewis
Luisa Contini – Marion Cotillard
Carla – Penelope Cruz
Lilli – Judi Dench
Saraghina – Fergie
Stephanie – Kate Hudson
Claudia – Nicole Kidman
Mamma – Sophia Loren
Dante – Ricky Tognazzi
Fausto – Giuseppe Cederna
De Rossi – Valerio Mastandrea
Pierpaolo – Elio Germano
Donatella – Martina Stella
Jaconelli – Roberto Nobile
Cardinal – Remo Remotti
Dr. Rondi – Roberto Citran
A Weinstein Co. release presented with Relativity Media of a Weinstein Brothers/Marc Platt/Lucamar production, a Relativity production.
Produced by Marc Platt, Harvey Weinstein, John DeLuca, Rob Marshall.
Executive producers, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley, Bob Weinstein, Kelly Carmichael, Michael Dryer.
Co-executive producers, Arthur L. Kopit, Maury Yeston.
Directed by Rob Marshall.
Screenplay, Michael Tolkin, Anthony Minghella, based on the musical with book by Arthur L. Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti.
Camera, Dion Beebe.
Editors, Claire Simpson, Wyatt Smith.
Original music, Yeston; music supervisor, Matt Sullivan.
Production designer, John Myhre.
Senior art directors, Phil Harvey, Tomas Voth; supervising art director, Simon Lamont; set decorator, Gordon Sim.
Costume designer, Colleen Atwood.
Sound, Jim Greenhorn; re-recording mixers, Roberto Fernandez, Mike Prestwood Smith, Richard Pryke.
Choreographers, Marshall, John DeLuca.
Hair and make-up designer, Peter King.
Associate producer, Cattleya.
Assistant director, Vicki Allen.
Second unit camera, Damien Beebe.
Casting, Kate Dowd (U.K.), Beatrice Kruger (Italy).
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 118 Minutes.