Sony // 2009 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // May 10th, 2010
Liliane La Fleur: Directing a movie is a very overrated job, we all know it. You just have to say yes or no. What else do you do? Nothing. "Maestro, should this be red?" Yes. "Green?" No. "More extras?" Yes. "More lipstick?" No. Yes. No. Yes. No. That's directing.
Oh, but Sony had such high hopes for Nine. All-star cast, a director whose previous musical bagged several Oscars, including Best Picture, an adaptation of a wildly successful Broadway show...but things went south early in the production. Work on the screenplay was delayed by the writers' strike; the film took another hit with the untimely death of co-writer Anthony Minghella. Undaunted, visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, Sony lined up an Oscar-bait mid-December release...and it all went straight to hell. The film hit the box office with a resounding splat, grossing under $50 million against an $80 million budget.
Fellini's 8 1/2 has inspired a number of great films, including Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. Rob Marshall's Nine can't quite hold its own against either of those films, let alone the Fellini classic. It's a film full of great moments, but those moments never quite coalesce into something coherent.
Famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood) struggles on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His last two films flopped, and in ten days, shooting begins on his next film, Italia, featuring his longtime star and muse, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman, Bewitched). But Guido has a small problem -- he has no script. Not only does he not have a script, he doesn't even have a wisp of a story idea. Panicking in the midst of a press conference, he flees to a spa to try and pull himself together, but those plans are disrupted by the appearance of his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose). Awkward. As Guido's life crumbles around him, he becomes fixated on all the women who have shaped and inspired him.
Your typical Hollywood rags-to-riches story has a basic plot:
Act I: Our Hero has dreams of making it big
Act II: He arrives and becomes a smash success
Act III: Success goes to his head
Act IV: His life comes crashing down around him
Act V: If it's a comedy, he makes a comeback; if tragedy, he becomes an Uwe Boll regular.
Nine is Guido's Act IV. It is as much character study as traditional narrative, as his self-centered antics finally start to alienate the women he loves. The problem is by flinging us into the middle of Guido's collapse, we miss out on a lot of character development. Some background on Guido is provided via flashback, but it's minimal and painted in broad strokes. We don't get enough of a glimpse of Guido to really empathize with him. He's certainly likable, but we never see a glimpse of his supposed genius. Instead, we see him running a series of cons on his producer, the press, his mistress, and, of course, his wife. It's something of a testament to Daniel Day-Lewis that he manages to keep Guido likable in the midst of some caddish behavior.
The musical numbers are elaborately staged, and are edited into the film to make us think that they occur in Guido's head. In the initial number, "Guido's Song," Marshall cuts back and forth between Guido's press conference and the number, effectively showing that the number reflects Guido's state of mind; the editing itself accentuates Guido's frazzled state. However, too many of the numbers, while elaborately staged, do little to advance the plot. The final result is that you get the gist of a plot, one that plays out more like a series of snapshots rather than a coherent narrative. Equally frustrating is that the non-musical parts can't quite compete with the numbers. The Chicago approach simply isn't as effective the second time around.
That's not to say that the numbers themselves are bad; far from it. It's just that the plot seems to be in service to the numbers rather than the other way around. Fergie blows the doors off with "Be Italian," but to capture a production number that runs out of kitchen sinks to chuck into the mix, Marshall shoots everything in long shots, focusing on the ensemble choreography, so that Fergie lacks the physical presence in the song that the earthy, sensual song demands. Marshall tries to compensate for this by cutting between the production number and Guido's memories of Saraghina (shot in extreme closeup), but it doesn't quite work. When Marshall finally does dial things down, with Nicole Kidman's "Unusual Way," the result is a touching ballad from an idealized object of desire who wants more than anything for Guido to take her down from her pedestal. The staging of this number is much more delicate than the others, the frame of reference gently shifting back and forth between the real world and Guido's imagination as Claudia rejects Guido's idealized image of her. Too often, though, there is a POV inconsistency with the numbers. They are supposedly going on inside Guido's head, but many of them a clearly presented from someone else's perspective.
Picture quality is excellent, capturing the natural beauty of Italy as well as the rampant excesses of the musical numbers. Many of the number are shot at least in part in black-and-white, and those scenes look great as well. Sound is only adequate. The dialogue and music are clear, but the surround channels are woefully weak in the production numbers. If you're going all out with the visuals, why not go the extra mile for the sound mix as well? There are quite a few featurettes covering the cast and choreography, along with a few music videos. For the most part, they're relatively bland, with the exception of the feature on Daniel Day-Lewis. A moment that makes you go whoa!: Sophia Loren says that she, Sophia freaking Loren, was intimidated working with Lewis. The commentary track, with Marshall and producer John DeLuca, offers some insights into both the movie and the production, but is a bit dry at times.
Whatever faults the film may have, acting is not one of them. Daniel Day-Lewis turns in yet another strong performance, acquitting himself quite well in terms of singing and dancing. "Guido's Song" is physically demanding, with Guido climbing around scaffolding, walking across a bean, leaping into thin air, and Lewis attacks it with a vengeance. Initially I thought that they had used a stunt double, but Marshall raves in the commentary track how Lewis did all of it. There's a mischievous quality to Lewis' portrayal, but at the same time, all the doubt and fear lurk behind the playful public façade. The supporting cast is just as strong, both in terms of acting as well as singing; Judi Dench returns to her musical roots (she was the original Grizelda in Cats, but was injured prior to opening night and replaced by Elaine Paige), Kate Hudson will no doubt surprise with her paean to style over substance, "Cinema Italiano," and men (and some women) will have to hose themselves down at the end of Cruz's "Song from the Vatican."
But Marion Cotillard. Wow. Just, wow. In the real world, Luisa is reserved, but you can see the hurt in her eyes at Guido's indiscretions. Her songs are truly an expression of her deepest thoughts though (a perfect example of the POV problem plaguing the numbers). In "My Husband Makes Movies," we feel her love for Guido alongside her resigned acceptance that he is who he is, indiscretions and all. When Guido crosses one line too many, every bit of frustration, humiliation, and bitterness explode in "Take it All," a fearless, brilliant performance. Cotillard should have gotten an Oscar nod for her work here.
The film as a whole has some major issues, and it quite probably makes the audience work much too hard to fit things together. Still, if you stick with the movie, you will be rewarded: The closing sequence is flat-out brilliant.
Nine is frustrating because it has so many things that work. It's possible that Marshall is trying to be meta here, with the fragmentation of the plot mirroring the fragmentation of Guido's psyche. If so, then he was too clever for his own good. As it is, though, the film tends to ironically illustrate Kate Hudson's line, "Style is the new content."
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13