An Oscar-nominated director of a Best Picture; six Oscar-winning actors; a big, flashy Broadway musical full of electrifying song and dance; a classic cinematic masterpiece at its core—Nine was constructed by Harvey Weinstein to be an awards-season triumph. Why, despite plenty of dazzling pieces, did it end up more like Frankenstein’s Monster?
Nine is Chicago director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s 1983 Broadway musical (revived in 2003), itself a singing and dancing version of Frederico Fellini’s 1963 semi-autobiographical masterpiece 8½. The movie and the musical follow fictional famed Italian film maker Guido Contini (Marcello Mastroianni in the original film, now Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles with writer’s block, tries to juggle the needs of both his wife (Marion Cotillard) and mistress (Penelope Cruz), all the while reflecting on how his life-long love of women has fueled his now sputtering creativity.
This leads to a lot of scantily clad women showing up to sing and dance at Guido. Among them are Nicole Kidman as his Muse and leading lady (the Claudia Cardinale role), Kate Hudson as an ambitious reporter-groupie, and Stacy Ferguson as the neighborhood whore from his childhood. Keeping their clothes on are Dame Judi Dench as his loyal costume designer, and Sophia Loren as his saintly, idolized dead mother.
All sounds good, right? Big stars, big songs, lots of sexy-cool ‘60s Italian fashion, cigarettes, and sports cars. And when you zoom in on each aspect of Nine, everything seems to be clicking along beautifully. Day-Lewis is his usual tremendous self, Cotillard is a study in powerful grace and subtlety, and all the rest of the actresses are at the top of their games. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle and all that jazz and everything and everyone looks delicious.
So what went wrong? Why has Nine tanked at the box-office, vanished from the Oscars odds-making, and more importantly, why doesn’t the film leave you with the breathless exhilaration and artistic fulfillment its roster of talent promises? For starters, somewhere along the way the Oscar cart (or rather, the cartload of Oscars) got out in front of the creative horse.
For those wondering why it’s called Nine, the technical reason is 8½ was Fellini’s eighth and a half film (his seventh feature, plus three “halves”: two shorts and a collaboration). The musical then added another “half” of songs. But the current PR reason is there are nine little gold Oscar statues (out of 23 nominations) rattling around on the screen—including the writers (Michael Tolkin and the late, beloved Anthony Minghella) and an honorary career award for Loren. That’s a lot of gold-plated firepower.
At least producer Harvey Weinstein and director Marshall hoped so. The Weinstein Company (TWC) is struggling financially and Harvey is desperate to work his usual (bullying? demonic?) awards-season magic and score some post-Miramax Oscars. (Some of that old Miramax Harvey voodoo got Marshall’s 2002 musical Chicago a Best Picture win).
Last winter Harvey managed to almost single-handedly finagle Kate Winslet an Oscar for The Reader, and this summer Inglourious Basterds (from loyal Miramax and now TWC director, Tarantino) was been a surprise box-office hit. Plus TWC has a couple very nice films out there it could be pushing for Oscars: Viggo Mortensen’s performance in The Road, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man, and Rian Johnson’s The Brother’s Bloom.
But those films aren’t flashy enough for Weinstein. He wanted a Big Oscar Splash—a night of Academy Glory filled with at least nine nominations for Nine and multiple trips to the podium for his director, actors, and himself–thus announcing with authority that Harvey Is Back. The result is a Nine that feels Oscar-rigged to Death.
The frustrating thing is that Nine works just fine in small bites. Watch a scene here, sit down for a song there, and you’ll be suitably impressed. Nine will probably be much more fun to watch on DVD or to catch bits of as you surf movie channels in a year–in fact if I had a DVD copy handy this holiday I'd have been happily hopping around it, feasting on the sumptuous song productions. But if you’re going to sit down and watch the whole thing, start to finish, Nine just doesn’t add up. As you enjoy the individual songs and parts, a growing discontent creeps in–an over-excited boredom.
The central problem is Guido. Day-Lewis doesn’t struggle or fail in the role (originally intended for Javier Bardem)—he brings his good stuff, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s good stuff is very, very good indeed. Here, as always, he can play both subtle and broad in the same stroke, and his cool, easy, intensity is offset by a slip of a half smile.
But it’s all wasted on Guido. So he can’t come up with a story for his new film? Who cares? So he loves women too much but doesn’t know how to handle either his patient wife or firecracker mistress? Why should I feel sorry for him? Day-Lewis is handed a shell of a character dressed impeccably in fine Italian suits, ties, shoes, and eye wear. We’re told he’s a great director (The Maestro!), but let’s face it—the ‘60s notion of the foreign film auteur and his alluring mystique comes off today more like pretentious parody.
Are we supposed to cry for Guido, or at least sympathize with him just because he’s trying to rationalize away his womanizing as part of the creative process? It’s fine to have an unlikable protagonist—take Renee Zellweger’s Roxie in Chicago, or Day-Lewis’s own Daniel Plainveiw in There Will Be Blood. But there has to be something compelling and fascinating about such a character and his or her motives.
Sure, Nine looks great—the women (except for Dench and Loren) are nicely trussed up in an array of lingerie that sometimes makes the film feel like an epic celebration of Victoria’s Secret, by way of Super Mario Brothers. It’s as if they staged a musical and a brothel broke out. Each woman gets a song (Cotillard gets two), and I’ll leave it up to your personal taste in tunes and tarts to pick a favorite—Cotillard's "My Husband Makes Movies" is a highlight, and both Fergie’s show-stomping “Be Italian” and Hudson’s audacious “Cinema Italiano” have their boosters and detractors.
But Marshall gets carried away trying to splice energy into the musical numbers. The choreography may be stunning on paper, but it’s hard to tell on screen—too often the star dancers are presented as scantily clad assistants in a magician’s cabinet: they’re spun around, sawed up, and we get to glimpse a torso here, a leg there, a chest here, a head there. Instead of enlivening things, it leaves the viewers detached, and for all the efforts to keep everything jumping and moving, the film falls flat. All that Fosse becomes fossilized.
What worked for Fellini and Mastroianni on an autobiographic, self-reflective scale in 8½ comes off shallow and sleazy when a small army of producers, director, writers, and stars all try to puff it up into a loud, frenetic movie musical. Instead of a personal statement about the love of film and women, Nine is Weinstein and Marshall’s personal statement about wanting more Oscars for their shelves.
In order to get inside his own
cinematic process’s hall of mirrors, Fellini explored the crossroads of creativity and
carnality, of Earthly vice and artistic virtue. But 46 years later, for all its enjoyable surface sensations, Nine ends up a pretty, prancing celebration of artifice; turning Italian cinema and Broadway musical into an amusement-park awards ride that jerks us along from one gaudy attraction to the next. Arrivederci, Guido!!