Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: "Nine"

As a musical, "Nine" is fairly enjoyable. There's a lot of pageantry, dancing, gorgeous costumes and equally gorgeous women wearing them. The songs aren't really strong enough to make you want to rush out and buy the soundtrack, but the actors, mostly non-professional singers, carry them off fairly well.

As a story, though, this film version of the Broadway show -- which, in turn, was adapted from Federico Fellini's seminal autobiographical film "8½" -- "Nine" leaves much to be desired.

It's the tale of Guido Contini, a successful Italian movie director struggling to make his 9th film, though he doesn't have a script or even a notion of what it's about. Nonetheless, sets are being built and costumes being stitched, and the flurry of activity at the studio has an undercurrent of panic because his last two flicks were flops.

Meanwhile, his personal life is a shambles as he juggles his wife, mistress and lead actress, all vying for attention.

Now, let me get my biases right off my chest here: I'm not a big fan of movies about tortured artists. Whenever a film endeavors to convince us how much people who paint or write or direct have to suffer for their art, it makes me want to watch them dig sewage ditches or teach at an inner-city high school, just so they'd know what real hardship is.

Filmmakers using their art medium to contemplate their own role in creating it just strikes me as wretchedly narcissistic.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, who makes us like him a little bit by acknowledging in his opening song that he's a 10-year-old boy housed in the body of a man nearly 50. He knows he's headed for a cliff, creatively and romantically, but he just can't take his foot off the gas.

Day-Lewis nails the Italian accent, and makes for a striking figure with his head and shoulders perpetually hunched like he's expecting a blow. His singing is just so-so, though he only performs a couple of tunes.

The rest of the songs are sung by the various women in Guido's life, swirling through his imagined movie as they represent different aspects of his own fantasies and delusions.

The best song, and singer, is "Be Italian," sung by pop star Fergie (aka Stacy Ferguson) from the Black Eyed Peas. She plays Saraghina, a beach-dwelling prostitute who taught Guido a few things about love when he was a boy.

We already knew Marion Cotillard (who plays Guido's wife Luisa) could sing from her Oscar-winning performance in "La Vie En Rose." So it's no surprise that she pulls off her two songs quite well, particularly the raging emotions of "Take It All."

Nicole Kidman (as Guido's leading lady) also does well with "Unusual Way," as does Penelope Cruz (as Guido's desperately needy mistress) with the torch song "A Call From the Vatican."

Judi Dench, as Guido's longtime costume designer and confidant, is less impressive with her tune, and Sophia Loren's lullaby as Guido's mother is so short it seems tacked on just to give an excuse to include the Italian screen legend.

Kate Hudson, playing a nosy American journalist, has fun with the upbeat "Cinema Italiano," which was not in the stage version but was written exclusively for this film.

Director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") is a dazzling visualist, and the musical scenes hum along under their own energy and momentum. Whenever the music stops, though, "Nine" is revealed as a silly story in need of a chair.

2.5 stars

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