Please be warned. I am about to review a movie musical. Not only will there be spoilers, my analysis will be exhausting…
I saw a lot of shitty movies in 2009, but I still wouldn’t call them disappointments. I had absolutely no expectation for them. I knew they were going to be awful. Nine, however, was something I had high hopes for. Directed by Rob Marshall, adapted from a Tony-winning musical, itself adapted from a film by one of cinema’s international greats, Federico Fellini, featuring a cast of Oscar winners and nominees from multiple nations and generations, Nine should have been a slam dunk. But it just wasn’t.
I should first say that Nine is not awful. There is much to admire; just not as much as there should be. Visually, it’s a stunner. Rob Marshall has an excellent production team and they clearly all work excellently together. Marshall trades in the shady cells of Chicago for the sun-kissed vistas of Rome and coastal Italy. The swingin’ ’60s style is captured just as expertly as Prohibition Chicago was. The film sounds great, as the score by Maury Yeston has some truly wonderful songs within it. Oddly, though, the songs are more enjoyable coming from your iPod than from the big screen.
That’s because, even though he is one of the most sought-after names in the world of musical theater, Rob Marshall doesn’t really know how to make a movie musical. The conceit of Chicago‘s musical numbers was that, unless they explicitly occurred on a stage in a performance setting within the story, they were happening in the main character’s mind–and that worked. It worked in Chicago because Chicago was all about the main character’s obsession with celebrity and fame, and her fantasies of living in a world where she commanded the world’s attention from a stage. As a professional star-gazer, Roxie sees anyone in a position higher than hers as a dazzling performance artist. They have what she doesn’t have (power, authority, experience), and she equates that with celebrity.
All this means that Chicago is not really a fully integrated movie musical. And that’s fine. Such is the nature of that particular beast. The problem is that Rob Marshall seems to think that Chicago‘s formula is the only way to make musicals. It sounds like it should work. Nine is the story of Guido Contini, the Italian cinema’s (fictional) favorite son, who is facing insurmountable writer’s block as he prepares to shoot his next masterpiece. Having the character of a film director view the women in his life as characters in song-and-dance numbers should work, but it just doesn’t. For one thing, we’re never given any indication that Guido makes movie musicals. Why would be this the way he sees his women? For another, it becomes apparent that, as a stage piece, Nine was a fully and intricately integrated musical. I say this is apparent because the way Marshall excises the musical numbers from the reality of the world within the film often completely interrupts the flow of the story. Finally, despite this front-and-center presentation of these women, the numbers often fail to define them as characters. We aren’t given much time with a good number of them, and when their moments in the spotlight are so brief and muddled, it doesn’t help us sympathize.
And sympathize we should, because the women in this film have got to be the most unhappy, miserable lot this side of Desperate Housewives. That’s because they continually throw themselves at or pledge themselves to a man who is utterly unlikable. As a husband, lover, boss, employee, and son, Guido is a boorish, selfish, and arrogant failure. “I would like the universe to get down on its knees/And say, ‘Guido, whatever you please’,” he sings. Modest, he’s not. He estranges himself from his wife, drives his mistress to suicidal depression, takes his only defenders for granted, and flirts shamelessly and compulsively with any mini-skirt that sashays by. Whatever rakish charm Daniel Day-Lewis has as Guido fades fast, and it evaporates completely during his musical numbers. This is not a mid-life crisis you can hope to identify with. Halfway through, I felt like saying, “Take your head out of your ass, put your dick back in your pants, and get to work!”
As for the seven members of Emotionally Battered Women Anonymous, there were a lot of surprises, some good and some bad. The best among them is Marion Cotillard. As Guido’s long-suffering wife Luisa, she winds up becoming the film’s aching emotional center. Her first song, “My Husband Makes Movies”, is a perfect character piece, lyrically powerful and graciously framed. Her second, “Take It All”, a defiant striptease, is so desperate that it loses all sex appeal, which is what makes it such a powerful moment.
Providing more than enough sex appeal are Penelope Cruz and Fergie, as Guido’s longtime mistress and his inappropriate boyhood crush, respectively. Cruz is great as Carla. Watching Guido take advantage of her naiveté is pretty hard, especially since she has the audience on her side the moment she appears in her song, “A Call from the Vatican”. That number might be the sexiest three minutes of film of 2009. Coiling herself in ropes, writhing across a set that looks like something Georgia O’Keefe would have designed, she is both playful and powerful. Even more threatening with her sexuality is Fergie, playing Saraghina, a local woman of ill repute who fascinated Guido as a boy. Her only appearance in the film is a flashback, in which Guido recalls Saraghina’s advice to “Be Italian”, as conveyed through an awesomely choreographed, captured, and edited massive musical number. Fergie looks and sounds nothing like her Black Eyed Pea self. The girl can belt! If the other women were as powerful singers, maybe Nine would have been more captivating.
Nicole Kidman, as Guido’s go-to leading lady Claudia, gets to sing the haunting “Unusual Way”, but doesn’t get to do much else. She bears her soul in the song, which comes mere moments after we finally meet her, and she never returns once it ends. It all happens a bit too quickly; it’s sort of emotional vomiting. Personally, I wanted to know a lot more about Claudia.
Kate Hudson and her performance of “Cinema Italiano” had been one of the main marketing points of Nine, and both were surprisingly weak. As Stephanie, Hudson represents little more than one final temptation for horndog Guido; given the unflattering close-ups, it’s kind of hard to see why he was so conflicted. “Cinema Italiano”, while a bouncy poppy song, fell flat on screen. The toe-tapping tune, deifying Guido, comes moments after he’s left his wife in tears. It’s poor placement and pacing; by that point, nobody–including Stephanie, including the audience–should be admiring Guido.
As a movie buff, it’s a thrill to see Sophia Loren on the screen. Playing Guido’s doting, disapproving, and deceased mother, it becomes apparent in her performance of “Guarda La Luna” that all of Guido’s issues start with her, which is rather cliché. In an appropriately hypnotic cadence, she speak-sings her way through the lullaby. “Always remember, my son/You will always be mine,” she tells him as a boy and from the beyond. The lovely Ms. Loren is the only person who could have played this part: beautiful, authentically Italian, and so loaded with presence that her absence weighs heavily in all the right moments.
Rounding out this menagerie is Judi Dench as Lilli, Guido’s costume designer, confidant, and substitute mother. Dench makes Lilli a memorable character–feisty, assertive, and thoroughly lived–but her accent crosses the English Channel multiple times, and her number is a disappointment. As exposition or character background, “Folies Bergere” might have been more effective had most of it not been in French. Despite that, I was enjoying it as I watched it. My first thought was, “Cool. This must have been what it was like seeing Dame Judi play Sally Bowles decades ago”. My next thought was, “Huh. Well, this number not only sounds like it’s from Cabaret, it even looks like it”. And the next day, when I listened to the instrumental finale, which I thought was an excellent and effective moment that tied much of this wayward film together, I made a disappointing connection. That final scene was structurally identical to the final scene of the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret…which was choreographed by Rob Marshall.
So, I stand by my earlier accusation. It’s not that Rob Marshall doesn’t know how to make movie musicals; it’s that he only knows how to make one movie musical.