For his film version of the Broadway musical Nine, director Rob Marshall has ignored the show's most important piece of advice: Be Italian.
Playing Italian film director Guido Contini, Daniel Day-Lewis—not Italian. Nicole Kidman, not Italian. Kate Hudson, Stacey "Fergie" Ferguson, Dame Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard—tutti non sono Italiani. Sophia Loren, who plays Guido's mamma, is Italian. She's also dead in the movie, but for a corpse looks amazing.
Instead of letting his movie and its characters be even un po' d'Italiano, Marshall's goal for the story of an Italian director working in Italy surrounded by Italians seems to have been "Be in a hurry." Whizzing by in an espresso-driven flurry of frenetically edited dancing, music, hairdos and cigarettes, Nine is a two-hour ciclone that never slows down to clue the audience in on what it's doing. If you have never seen Nine onstage, or 8-1/2 (the autobiographical Fellini film that inspired the musical), Nine the movie will be like starting the Star Wars series with the attack of the clones.
Now more Moulin Rouge (the headache-inducing Baz Luhrmann film) than 8-1/2, the movie Nine is visually busy and emotionally inert. Wrapped up in cinematic trappings, it forgets much of the lusty Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit version for the stage and cuts four of its songs, including the poignant "Getting Tall."
Marshall's confused and joyless adaptation "opens up" the stage setting (a lush Italian resort-spa) with too-hasty drive-by peeks at famous locations in Rome and seaside scenery along the Mediterranean coast. Blink and you'll miss 'em.
Look quick for the big stars, too. Kidman, her face as frozen as an Elgin marble, plays Claudia Nardi, Guido's leading actress and longtime muse, now inexplicably Swedish, presumably to accommodate Kidman's impenetrable beige-ness. Kidman briefly wafts in to whisper-croak "Unusual Way" in a way that is unusual only in its dullness. Her character is supposed to be in love with Guido, non e vero? But in her scenes with Day-Lewis, she looks only slightly less bored than she used to when towering over ex-hubby Tom Cruise on a red carpet.
Nine boasts a bevy of mega-wattage leading ladies, young and old, all short on screen time in a film that barely bothers to reference who any of them is supposed to be. It does, however, go to extraordinary lengths to make them all look awful; they each suffer considerable visual insult thanks to cinematography by Dion Beebe.
There's grandmotherly little Judi Dench (her character's been converted into a seamstress for the movie) squeezed into an unflattering corset to sing and step through "Folies Bergere." There's Penelope Cruz, as Guido's mistress, in lingerie, thick makeup and harsh lighting, swinging on ropes like a Cirque du Soleil hooker in "Call from the Vatican." Kate Hudson, spaced out in white fringe and go-go boots for "Cinema Italiano," jiggles her way through a generic pony dance down a fashion runway that has zero to do with the rest of the film.
Last year's Best Actress Oscar winner, Marion Cotillard, is granted scant few moments to shine in Nine as Luisa, Guido's aggrieved actress-wife. She sings "My Husband Makes Movies" in a sweet, thin voice, but with a look on her face that hints of bad sardines at the lunch table.
And there is Day-Lewis. Nine has always been a difficult piece to cast because there is only one man in the story. From its Tony-winning Broadway debut, directed by Tommy Tune in 1983 and starring Raul Julia, to the 2003 revival starring Antonio Banderas, Nine has depended on its leading man to bring the Latin heat. And here is where Marshall's film goes tutto insano. As Guido, Day-Lewis is an Irish poet trying on a skinny Italian suit. All he brings is a soulful look, some greasy hair and a mouthful of chewing gum, which he chomps (between cigarettes) in painfully detailed closeups.
Nine is a pastiche of past and present episodes in the life of Guido, an idea-constipated filmmaker torn between his wife (Cotillard) and his trashy girlfriend (Cruz). With investors, reporters (including Hudson in a role not in the stage version), his favorite leading lady (Kidman) and studio execs demanding to know what his latest film will be about, panicked Guido flees from Rome to get himself together. He also needs to finish the script for which costumes and sets have already been built on an enormous soundstage at Cinecitta.
As Guido suffers his crisis of conscience about being something of a flimflam man to everyone in his life, Nine invites the viewer into his flashbacks about his mother (Loren) and about the gypsy prostitute (Fergie) he lusted for as a youngster.
Fergie, perhaps not surprisingly, is the only waker-upper in Nine. Banging a tambourine on her boobs and tossing sand in the air, she belts "Be Italian" along with a chorus line of gypsy ladies doing the old Cabaret squat-on-the-chair routine. Come to think of it, Marshall recycled that from his film version of Chicago. There are whole sequences of Nine that look copied from Chicago, including the red-lit set piece inside Guido's soundstage, the Fosse-ography on the chairs and the quick-cut editing between reality and fantasy.
Marshall also made the same casting error on Nine that he made with Chicago, opting for big stars who aren't singers. Day-Lewis is to singing what Dame Judi is to the can-can at the Folies Bergere.