Some Men Catch Fish
My husband spins fantasies,
He lives them, then gives them to you.
—Luisa (Marion Cotillard), “My Husband Makes Movies”
The story of Nine concerns redemption. Sort of. Yes, the film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a selfish cad, unfaithful husband, and careless business partner. But he’s fabulous too. Introduced in Rob Marshall’s musical on a stage set—evoking the fabled Cinecitta, circa 1965—he imagines himself surrounded by all his stunning women, past and present, emphasis on the possessive. Oh Guido Guido Guido, they all moan and sigh. He smiles, not even in need of redemption in his own mind.
The movie, yet another Broadway extravaganza transposed clumsily to the screen, is structured according to Guido’s fantasies, both ecstasies and travails. At the moment, he’s feeling particularly under pressure to come up with one, as the script for his upcoming movie is overdue. Pressed by his producer to meet his ostensible deadline and also by a throng of oh-so-cool journalists who can’t ask an intelligent question to save their lives, Guido only waves his hands and suggests that his movie—to be called, er, “Italia”—will wow all and be brilliant and they all just have to wait. This appears to be the best self-performance he can come up with, even after being urged by his longtime costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench) to have confidence in the face of his growing panic: “You’ll be fine,” she tells him before he heads to the press conference, “You’re a world class liar. Go out there and lie for Italy. Lie for ‘Italia.’”
Guido’s lies don’t so much get him into trouble as they form the basis of his existence, his belief in his own mythology and charisma. Though headlines and his fans assert that he’s a genius, you don’t see evidence of that, in his work or in his talking about his work. If this is the movie’s way of challenging the irksome notion of celebrity for celebrity’s sake, or the excesses of self-regard or selfishness that fame inspires in individuals, that’s not a bad idea, but it’s sort of hard to tell if that’s what’s up. For Nine also seems quite fond of Guido’s Guidoness, his arrogance and creativity, or maybe just the performance of same. The problem is that none of the lies investigated by the movie—Guido’s lapses and desires framed as a series of performances—is especially compelling. Adapted by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella from the longer 1982 stage musical, the movie lurches from moment to moment, allotting each of Guido’s women a song to sing (the wife gets two, including the completely forgettable “My Husband Makes Movies”) and something like a bone to pick with their director.
While he relies on each woman for different and fairly obvious reasons, their interests in him are more mysterious (again, even granting the film’s conceit that he’s irresistible, the women’s total lack of agency is ancient conceptualizing and not a little depressing). Yes, Mamma (Sophia Loren) is understandably biased (and seemingly sans partner, so that she might be completely devoted to her boy, in his mind, anyway), but really, Loren is something of her own planet, never quite contained by this film’s gravitational pull. Mrs. Contini, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), is less fortunate, repeatedly disappointed by his affairs and his boredom with the marriage, yet just as repeatedly willing to take him back.
That is, until the big fat moment of crisis represented—and belabored—in Nine. Looking back on his past in an effort to understand his current artistic block, Guido spends a whole number off-screen, so his child-self (Giuseppe Spitaleri) and his young friends can open their eyes wide while subjected to the spectacle of Saraghina (Fergie) spreading her legs and asserting that each boy must learn to “be Italian” as they make love. National self-aggrandizing aside, Fergie’s act here is part ferocious and part silly, alluding to those sultry sirens Loren used to play, slinking on the beach with their dresses falling off their shoulders, but hopelessly unsexy and loud.
Guido’s other girls are likewise caricatures, from his current, suicidal lover Carla (Penélope Cruz) to the silver-mini-skirted, teased-haired reporter Stephanie (Kate Hudson) (whose self-adoring fashion runway number, “Cinema Italiano,” is weirdly frightening—it doesn’t help that Oprah dug up footage of Goldie Hawn dancing in exactly the some way back in the ‘60s, a repetition that suggests a heartbreaking lack of invention or exasperating lack of self-awareness or both). The movie holds out hope for sure-to-be-big drama when his muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman) arrives in Rome, then fizzles into still more of Guido’s monotonous egoism, as he wonders some more at how he came to this pass, unable to make a movie, unable to feel all right about cheating yet again.
For all his worrying about his career and, for a minute, his marriage and his miserable mistress, Guido is actually not in need of redemption or even much rethinking. Instead, it appears the rest of the world needs only to catch up with the idea that Guido’s many misbehaviors are only signs of his wonderfulness, that his women need to need him, that his movies—whatever they are—speak for him. You’ll just have to take his word on that.