Forget the provenance of “Nine” for a moment and consider it solely as a movie unto itself.
Rob Marshall’s musical is a dreamy, sometimes nightmarish journey by a single man – movie director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) – whose muse has deserted him, though its female embodiment (or the plural thereof) is grabbing at him from all sides.
Indeed, the women in Guido’s life, who have served as his inspiration in the past, now seem to be draining him without even realizing it. Even as he struggles to figure out what his next movie is going to be about (it’s supposed to start shooting in a week), the women are pawing at him for attention, for favors, for time.
“Nine” is a tour of Guido’s imagination and memory, writ large as a musical. Not a musical comedy; there aren’t many laughs in the script by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella (though it’s not a straight drama, either). But it’s a musical, nonetheless, in which the songs seldom serve the plot but, rather, are used to delineate character.
Each character in this adaptation of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit Broadway musical is given one song (two for his wife), which reveals who she is and what she wants. But because they are all singing in Guido’s mind, their numbers mostly take place on the faux Coliseum set, backed by scaffolding, that has been erected for his still unwritten film on a soundstage at Cinecitta Studios in Rome.
Fans of the original musical may be disappointed that a large chunk of the original score has gone by the wayside as Marshall and crew put together their adaptation. Marshall pays much closer attention to the musical’s original source: Federico Fellini’s ground-breaking 1963 film, “8½,” the Italian maestro’s autobiographical paean to the magic of film-making.
Marshall’s visual style here (in the cinematography of Dion Beebe) mixes color and black-and-white, lavish studio production values with gritty handheld moments. He homes in Fellini’s original notion: that the entire adventure is happening as much in Guido’s mind as in his life.
As played by Day-Lewis with a panache that is all Italian charm and guile, Guido is a man who doesn’t know his own mind and can’t make a choice. He loves his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard, heartbreaking here) – but consistently betrays her with his lover, Carla (a smoking-hot Penelope Cruz). And he is drawn to his long-time star Claudia (Nicole Kidman, who pops up long enough to sing Yeston’s most haunting song, “In a Very Unusual Way”).
And there are more: He dallies briefly with a reporter from Vogue (Kate Hudson) – and turns for counsel to his longtime wardrobe designer (Judi Dench). He even consorts with ghosts: of the local prostitute Saraghina who fascinated him as a youngster (Fergie), and, of course, of his late mother (the timeless Sophia Loren).
The acting here is not the problem. Day-Lewis captures the dry-well sense of a man aching for inspiration and not finding it. His agony is palpable each time he realizes that one of these women – who he has hoped will light his fuse for the inevitable explosion of creativity – instead is draining him of vital energy without sparking anything in return.
Marion Cotillard matches him, bringing a simmering anger to the loving wife whose patience is at an end – who finally sees Guido for who and what he is. Her pain comes at the realization that Guido can’t see his own flaw: his inability to make any change in himself, despite his utter willingness to promise a total transformation. Cruz is also strong as the passionate mistress who is childlike in her willingness to disrupt Guido’s life for her own needs.
But “Nine” offers mostly lackluster music, offered in elaborately staged numbers that seem neither organic nor joyously artificial – just artificial. Marshall does his best to pump up the energy, but his images don’t illuminate. Indeed, in Saraghina’s song, in which Fergie and back-up dancers keep sifting handfuls of sand – or throwing it about – all I could think about was how gritty they all must have felt afterward and how glad they must have been to be done with it.
Yet, without the music, “Nine” would be that absolutely unnecessary object: a remake of “8½.”
Does that make “Nine” an unnecessary object as well? Not really – this is not a beloved entry in the Broadway musical canon, so a rethinking is not out of order. After all, the original production was about the imaginative staging by theater wizard Tommy Tune (and whatever happened to him?); the revival was about star-power casting of Antonio Banderas.
But this movie version doesn’t seem to have any mojo going for it, despite strong showings by its cast. “Nine” ultimately doesn’t give you a compelling reason to root for it.