In 2002, director-choreographer Rob Marshall helped to revitalize movie musicals with the fantastic, Oscar-winning Chicago. Hoping to strike gold again, Marshall and most of his earlier film’s production team have reunited for an adaptation of the stage musical Nine, opening nationwide on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the filmmakers fall short this time around.
The original Broadway production of Nine debuted in 1982 and won that year’s Tony Award for Best Musical. It had a successful revival in 2003, starring Antonio Banderas in the lead as Guido Contini, an Italian movie director patterned on Federico Fellini. Nine is actually an adaptation of Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 film 8 ½.
For the new film, Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Contini and surrounded with a bevy of international, female superstars (most GLBT faves) as the various significant women in his life. Nicole Kidman plays Contini’s favorite leading lady; Penélope Cruz assays the role of Contini’s mistress; Marion Cotillard, a previously-unknown French actress who won the Best Actress Academy Award for her turn as Edith Piaf in the 2007 film, La Vie en Rose, plays Contini’s wife, Luisa; Judi Dench serves as his devoted costume designer; Kate Hudson has a great turn as a fashion journalist out to undress the filmmaker; and pop singer Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas makes a strong impression as Contini’s first, boyhood prostitute.
Completing the roster is the perfectly cast Sophia Loren, beautiful as ever, as Contini’s mother. Loren even gets to sing, as all the women do. Few of them are trained singers or dancers, but Marshall generally works the same magic with them that he did with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones — neither known much for their musical ability — in Chicago.
Dench, who actually started out her illustrious career in musicals and was the original Sally Bowles in the London production of Cabaret, fares best. She is in great voice during her number, which recounts her character’s early years with the Folies Bergeres. It is a glamorous evocation of the famed Parisian show.
Cruz sizzles during her sexy song, deceptively titled “A Call from the Vatican.” Most impressive — even to a gay man like myself — is her toned body and frequent, spread-eagle dance moves. Cotillard, who could barely speak English two years ago when she accepted her Oscar, reveals perfect diction and a lovely singing voice during the well-staged “My Husband Makes Movies”, even if she appears a little young for the role.
The aforementioned Hudson tears up the screen with a new song written especially for the movie, “Cinema Italiano” (the songs for both the stage and screen versions of Nine were written by Maury Yeston). While the lyrics are silly and the choreography Hullabaloo-esque, the film truly comes alive during the number.
Day-Lewis also makes a fine impression in his musical debut. The two-time Oscar winner (for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) conveys well Contini’s anxiety over his new film, which is due to begin filming in 10 days but lacks a script. Day-Lewis even leaps and bounds exuberantly up and over soundstage scaffolding during the first of his two songs.
Indeed, all the movie’s elements, with the exception of the irritatingly hyperactive editing during the musical numbers, are top-notch. So why isn’t Nine more satisfying in the end? Primary blame must be laid upon the episodic, predictable adapted screenplay, which is credited to Michael Tolkin and the late screenwriter-director Anthony Minghella. The film is less a cohesive character study than a collection of clichéd vignettes about an unfaithful, womanizing husband, enlivened by the occasional song and dance. If viewers become bored by the narcissistic Contini’s antics, just wait ten minutes and a lovely, more-often-than-not scantily clad woman will sing something.
Yeston’s score isn’t one for the ages either. Apart from “Be Italian,” which Fergie performs in the movie accompanied by a gang of sand-tossing harlots, none of the songs in either the stage or screen versions of Nine is particularly memorable. Actually, the tune viewers will likely find themselves humming on their way out of the movie is “Cinema Italiano,” partly due to the fact that it is reprised over the end credits.
While Nine probably won’t kill the renewed genre of movie musicals adapted from Broadway shows (Spring Awakening and a remake of Damn Yankees are reportedly up next), it is also unlikely to become either the box office hit or laurel-laden film that Chicago was. Chicago benefited from truly interesting characters and catchy songs. Nine is a melancholy tribute to a by-gone era in filmmaking and male-female relations … perhaps one better left without tribute paid to it.
UPDATE: Nine is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.