It all began with Federico Fellini’s luxurious black and white cinematic classic 8 1/2.
It’s a fantastic imaginative allegorical tale of a film director in crisis. He is creatively blocked – a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown – and completely at the mercy of the women in his life.
All things considered, it’s especially fitting that this monumental motion picture was released in 1963. It was a tumultuous decade that took no prisoners and left no boundaries unsettled.
No one at that time had ever seen anything remotely like 8 1/2. It was groundbreaking in its scope and vision.
The musical NINE was based on 8 1/2. It was originally conceived as a stirring provocative Broadway delight in the early 80s that had a grand and glorious revival approximately ten years later.
Finally, we now have the motion picture version of NINE.
In terms of precedents, it had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case.
GUIDO CONTINI (DANIEL DAY LEWIS) is a perpetual dreamer. In 1965, he is the most influential and revered Italian filmmaker of his generation.
But he is far from happy or fulfilled.
His fame has left him with a tremendous amount of pressure that never seems to dissipate. Everyone expects his latest film to be an enormous milestone and top everything else that he did before. His last two movies didn’t do so well.
He married a well known actor that appeared in several of his motion pictures, the lovely and charming LUISA (MARION COTILLARD). They are still emotionally connected. But their bond is disintegrating rapidly.
Guido is not a bad person. But he is extraordinarily flawed. His narcissism and self centredness make him a terrible husband. He has females throwing themselves at him day and night. His need for romance and drama (when he isn’t working or even when he is) ensure that fidelity is going to be a difficult road.
Guido is constantly lost in the fanciful flames of uncontrollable desire – women he admires, women he wants to seduce, women that he’s slept with, women that he’s loved, women that he lusts after endlessly. He is dazzled, haunted and brought to his knees by the fabulous women that populate his fantasies.
His mistress CARLA (PENELOPE CRUZ) has a husband and problems of her own. Aside from the physical, there doesn’t appear to be anything holding their affair together.
There is also the extravagant blonde international film star CLAUDIA JENSSEN (NICOLE KIDMAN), who has worked with Guido on numerous occasions. She is effectively his muse and artistic inspiration.
Claudia and Guido adore each other but have never crossed that line. They struggle to be professional because they know that if a romance didn’t work out that they would never be able to be involved in a creative project again.
Claudia is more serious about this potential relationship. She is weary of being worshipped for her perfect unattainable image.
Claudia is insistent on finding out if Guido actually has a part for her in his new film. She also needs to know (once and for all) if he could ever really love her for the person that she is.
She is very skeptical – and for good reason.
STEFANIA (KATE HUDSON) is a quirky adorable journalist from Vogue who’s seen all of Guido’s movies. She’s on the make and determined to sleep with him no matter what obstacles are put in her path.
LILLI (JUDI DENCH) knows Guido for exactly who he is…and she loves him anyway. She’s the costume designer on all of his motion pictures. Lilli is his prized confidante who has taken the place of his mother (SOPHIA LOREN) since she’s been gone. Lilli thinks Guido should clean up his act. It’s his only real shot at a satisfying meaningful existence.
In addition to all of this, Guido often thinks about SARAGHINA (FERGIE), a fiery lady of the evening who practiced her trade in the village where he grew up. When he was a small boy, she gave him the best advice about women he ever heard.
It’s a wicked shame that he never listened to her…
The screenplay for NINE was written by MICHAEL TOLKIN and the late great ANTHONY MINGHELLA. It was directed by the brilliant ROB MARSHALL, who had a smashing triumph with the fabulous CHICAGO.
NINE is a tragic misfire. With these gifted individuals involved on every conceivable level, how did this manage to take place?
NINE has a much more complicated premise than CHICAGO. Its subject matter has to be handled with extreme delicacy. Unless musicals are straight forward, film adaptations can be exceptionally tricky.
CHICAGO was based on a narrative structure that was actually successful. All of the musical numbers took place in Roxie’s mind. Her dreams unfolded right in front of your eyes. Plus the action shifted all over that raucous untamed metropolis. You weren’t confined to one set.
The dancing and singing here are also largely part of Guido’s thoughts and inner expressions. But those scenes simply never find their footing. Though the action is opened up considerably from the play, we keep returning to a black bare soundstage where Guido simultaneously attempts to grasp the important concepts of his life and to understand what he’s trying to film.
It’s bleak, lifeless and it doesn’t work.
Plus the songs (with the exception of A CALL FROM THE VATICAN and BE ITALIAN) are simply not memorable. You leave the cinema humming CHICAGO’S brazenly catchy soundtrack.
Not this time…
There is a shot in the trailer that repeats here. It’s of Guido in his pale blue Alfa Romeo, zooming along a deserted highway with an azure ocean gleaming seductively on the left side of the frame. It leaves you so awestruck you’re almost dizzy.
There should have been much more of that.
There is a scene where Claudia and Guido run to his car and are chased through the dark streets of Rome by the paparazzi. It’s incredibly reminiscent of the Hollywood movies made about Europe – either during that particular time period or set at that juncture.
It’s enough to make you swoon. But it encompasses a few brief moments and then it’s over.
Cinematographer DION BEEBE and costumer COLLEEN ATWOOD (both CHICAGO personnel) pull out all the stops…and it genuinely shows.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS tries with every fibre of his being. He smolders with intensity and is immersed in hard core Catholic grief and guilt. He suffers. He burns. He broods.
But he can’t do it alone.
MARION COTILLARD does a refined, accomplished turn as the wronged LUISA. But the new song TAKE IT ALL puts her squarely in the middle of a grossly distasteful situation.
Yes, she’s angry and openly defiant. But she’s effectively being manhandled and sexually humilated so that she can throw it up in her husband’s face. It would seem the price is too high.
This gorgeous immensely talented Oscar winner deserves better – and so do we.
NICOLE KIDMAN is solid as the mysterious A list presence who wants something in her life that she doesn’t have.
JUDI DENCH brings a particular focus and sincere warmth to her role as the ultimate career professional/trusted friend.
KATE HUDSON is fine for the few minutes she’s on. But she appears to be channeling a more aggressive adrenalized version of a character her mother played once upon a time.
The legendary SOPHIA LOREN is like a breath of fresh air. It’s wonderful to see her in a movie again.
Everyone’s musical ability is admirable to good with one glaring exception.
JUDI DENCH in particular takes it to the wall with enviable relish in her showstopping number FOLIES BERGERE.
The only problem is PENELOPE CRUZ as CARLA. Though she’s an immensely talented performer and can effectively portray sensuality on screen (she was very good in VOLVER and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA), her vocal abilities are rather limited. She also has a strong Spanish accent that makes the lyrics difficult to comprehend.
CARLA has the fantastic A CALL FROM THE VATICAN as part of her repertoire. The two stunningly charismatic women who portrayed this character on Broadway (the sensational ANITA MORRIS and the awesome JANE KRAKOWSKI) had men eating out of their hands six nights a week.
Those two goddesses knew their way around. They were decidedly not for the faint of heart. Plus you really need to be able to belt out that song and make people stand up and take notice.
ANITA and JANE were amazing. Up against them, Ms. Cruz simply can not compete.
On the other hand, FERGIE has taken endless amounts of heat for being cast in this project. She was one of the few truly awesome elements.
In her limited time as SARAGHINA with her own interpretation of BE ITALIAN, FERGIE makes the movie come alive. She is a riveting and magnificent presence that holds your attention masterfully. Her voice soars. She is electrifying. If the entire film had the magic of her one scene, it would have been spectacular.
FERGIE is going to have a career in film as big and bold as she wants it. Her talent is unparalleled.
But NINE as a whole (as opposed to the sum of its portions) is a glittering disappointment. The thing that it’s most successful at is making you long for the monumental spectacle of 8 1/2.
NINE is a tease that never satisfies. The potential was unlimited. But now it’s time to put it to bed.