No strength in numbers

by Charles McNulty

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

8 January 2010


LOS ANGELES — If a Hollywood genie ever offers to cast your movie musical with an international assortment of Oscar winners, tell him to get lost.

The wisdom of this advice is borne out by “Nine,” the jumble of a film of Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s Tony-winning musical. Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the creatively stymied, unstoppably adulterous Italian auteur Guido Contini, the movie is certainly fascinating to watch from an acting standpoint. With an all-star lineup of Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench and Sophia Loren — a Golden Globes table to die for — how could it be otherwise?

But “Nine,” the 1982 Broadway musical, is not just adapted to the screen — it’s transformed into another entity entirely. The result is a hybrid bearing DNA from Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (which originally inspired the musical), Marshall’s over-praised Oscar-winning film “Chicago” and even the realm of music video. R&B star Fergie, playing an earthy Italian prostitute, is on hand to show her costars how to work it, Black Eyed Peas style.

Unfortunately, these disparate strands don’t coalesce into a “Nine” that anyone who saw the show on Broadway in its original production or the 2003 revival would recognize.

Nor, as Betsy Sharkey spelled out in her Los Angeles Times review, is it a satisfying film on its own. I’d rate it higher than “Zero,” the counter title Sharkey proposes. But the main impression I walked away with was of a series of frenetic strategies to breathe life into source material that’s tough enough to animate on stage, never mind on screen, where live pizazz can’t compensate for middling songs and a sputtering plot.

In the midst of this razzle-dazzle maelstrom lies what I enjoyed most about the film — the centripetal force of Day-Lewis. It’s also, ironically, what knocks the movie completely out of balance. Substituting seismic emotional conflict for musical theater showmanship, the actor, with Marshall at the control panel, re-creates “Nine” in his own image.

It’s no surprise that this image is deeply inhabited and flush with feeling. Few stars in these TMZ days of gotcha gossip would be capable of making such a persuasive case for Guido’s humanity as Day-Lewis, whose sympathy for his character’s compulsive shortcomings helps forestall our moral condemnation.

Yet signing a lead for a musical who isn’t confident carrying a jingle or dancing the two-step is setting up quite an obstacle. Recall when someone had the bright idea to offer Marlon Brando the lead role in the movie version of “Guys and Dolls.”

All the Method brilliance in the world couldn’t overcome an amateur singing voice charged with doing justice to Frank Loesser’s astonishing score. And Brando, otherwise so right for the role of Sky Masterson, does a double disservice by just phoning in his performance — he’s a matinee idol mumbling “Luck Be a Lady.” (Trust me, I just sat through the 2 1/2 hours of the “Guys and Dolls” DVD, a penance that should put me on the express track from Purgatory to Paradise.)

The leading man of “Nine” digs much deeper than Brando into his role, which was originally created on stage by Raul Julia and later assayed by Antonio Banderas in the Spaniard’s very credible Broadway debut. Day-Lewis may not be Italian, but he plays Italian as only someone who intimately knows the people and culture can. Notice the transformation of his speech, the way he rhythmically rides vowels on waves of breath or the humility of his gestures that somehow serves to magnify the charm of his character’s sneaky Latin vanity.

Day-Lewis identifies with Guido as both an imperfect man and a frustrated artist questing for a compensatory perfection in his art. I was moved by this tortured narcissist in ways that I hadn’t been before. Even as we see the devastation of his chronic infidelities on his long-suffering wife (played by the marvelous Cotillard in a manner that nicely complements Day-Lewis’ intensity), many in the audience will have as much difficulty trying to stop caring about him as the women who are repeatedly betrayed by him.

Yet there’s a price to be paid for turning “Nine” into a more traditional character study. Guido’s two big dilemmas, his artistic block and adulterous addiction, aren’t ideally suited to a conventional narrative, as Fellini himself understood. (He deposited his Guido into an imagistic fantasia that was as much about a decadent milieu as an individual neurotic temperament.) And all this psychological emphasis works against what’s most agreeable about the show — its theatrical bounce and vibrancy.

Onstage, “Nine” unfolds less like a book musical than as series of revue-style seductions. The numbers aren’t inherently great — Yeston’s score isn’t one for the ages. But the actresses sell them as show-stoppers, each vying for the audience’s affection as her character vies for Guido’s attention.

What stands out most about David Leveaux’s rather abstract revival from a few years back is a very unabstract towel-wrapped Jane Krakowski as the lusty mistress Carla floating in on a sheet and fondling Banderas with her big toe during “A Call From the Vatican.” Krakowski, who had the challenge of re-creating a role that was burned into Broadway legend by Anita Morris in Tommy Tune’s original production, won a Tony for her flirty acrobatic flamboyance.

Marshall and his choreographic team furnish Cruz with a colorful rope-hanging bit that tries to up the erotic ante. But such a spectacle on film can’t possibly have the same impact as when performed in a theater. The camera distances the viewer the way a pane of glass will separate a shopper from a case of diamonds.

“Cinema Italiano,” the big new go-go number Yeston wrote for Hudson, who plays a journalist for American Vogue, sets out to rouse, but the effect is as alienating as Fergie’s pulsating rendition of “Be Italian.” Marshall seems bowled over by the zeal of their performances, and he pans in like a stage mother marveling at the laudable exertions of desperate-to-impress daughters.

The soundstage, where Guido struggles to make his embryonic movie, provides “Nine” with a locale in which imaginative leaps into song and dance don’t seem utterly incongruous. But there’s something so cold and cavernous about the space that even the film’s good-natured carnal crassness begins to take on a clinical aspect.

The musical high points for me came from Cotillard, who demonstrated the old truism that songs work best when they serve the story. She draws out the bittersweet poetry of “My Husband Makes Movies” and brings a jagged poignancy to the jazzy “Take It All,” one of Yeston’s new additions. Dench, who portrays Guido’s costume designer and confidante, shows she’s more than just a straight dramatic actress in her “Folies Bergeres” routine. The ditty doesn’t really make much sense in the context of the character or the plot, but Dame Judi delivers maximum pleasure for her fans.

Still, there’s something odd about a musical when the majority of numbers seem like intrusions. Kidman is as watchable as ever as the glam diva of Guido’s movie, but I preferred the way she lighted up the 1960s ambience with her iconic radiance to how she handled one of the show’s most haunting melodies, “Unusual Way.”

The lesson here is that actors as accomplished as Day-Lewis know how to make beautiful music with words and pauses — Broadway bells and whistles (or the movie blockbuster equivalent) can detract from their very particular gifts. Of course, who could resist casting a ready and willing (if not necessarily able) dramatic superstar for a musical role? When he wasn’t singing, Johnny Depp was riveting in “Sweeney Todd,” and Meryl Streep provided a big fat moneymaking wad of fun in “Mamma Mia!”

Yet it’s hard to picture the creators of a new musical dreaming about the type of glittery ensemble that Marshall has corralled. If you’re starting from scratch, you’re going to want specialists, not Shakespeareans, indie risk-takers, romantic comedians and pop singers. And converting a musical into a movie is as challenging as any other kind of birth. It’s no time for game celebrity greenhorns.

So if you’re Sean Penn and some flattering producer comes around trying to get you interested in a movie version of, say, one of Stephen Sondheim’s classics, put “Guys and Dolls” at the top of your Netflix queue.

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