[23 December 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If the movie musical dies a second death - and it’s not looking too good right about now - Rob Marshall will clearly be one of its assassins. While many enjoyed his interpretation of the Bob Fosse infused work Chicago, the Broadway choreographer turned filmmaker has yet to figure out the difference between stage and screen. This is blatantly obvious with his second stab at song and dance significance - Nine. A loose adaptation of Federico Fellini’s classic film 81/2, the main narrative centers on a famed ‘60s Italian director (Daniel Day-Lewis) who has lost his creative edge. Looking for inspiration, he envisions the women in his life as various muses, each one offering the possibility of redemption - or sometimes, the stunning truth about his arrogance and egomania.
Sounds like a promising premise for a show, especially one set against the more experimental phase of the Great White Way (circa the early ‘80s). Nine, like Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd was attempting the push the boundaries of what was acceptable musical fodder. Without these noble efforts, we wouldn’t have the “anything goes” approach of today. While it was intensely popular, it was not particularly memorable. Few of Maury Yeston’s tunes became standards (“Be Italian” came closest) and audiences enjoyed the acting and celebrity more than the story. So in the vast realm of arena to celluloid translations, Nine would be an incredibly hard sell. And when you consider the number of titles that could have been made into musicals thanks to Marshall’s Oscar winning clout, picking this particular one was foolish - and fatal.
That’s because, no matter how you slice it, Nine is an awful show. What works in the intimacy of a theater comes across as dull, lifeless, and self-indulgent blown up 70 feet high. Marshall has relied on the talents of screenwriters Michael The Player Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella to modify the revue format into something more straightforward, but their efforts keep butting heads against Yeston’s atonal trappings. The nods to Fellini and the filmmaking community of the time are curious, and often entertaining, but just when Marshall has us engaged and interested, the dirge-like drone of “My Husband Makes Movies” steps in and ruins it. The first rule of thumb about adapting musicals to film is that they should be good musicals, and Nine is definitely not that.
Secondly, the story is just too scattershot to truly resonate. Guido Contini’s life is the stuff of standard backstage melodrama. His mother (Sophia Loren) is a saint. A local prostitute (Fergie) introduced him to the ways of sex when he was a kid. He has a devoted wife (Marion Cotillard) who used to be his main star, but she has been replaced by a blond bombshell (Nicole Kidman) onscreen and a ditzy married psycho off (Penelope Cruz). Overseeing his mangled moviemaking empire is a longtime costume designer and collaborator (Judi Dench) who acts as confessor, sage, and realist. Still, this doesn’t keep Guido’s eye from wandering, as when an American reporter (Kate Hudson) tries to seduce him. Now instead of the material making each one of these conflicts soar, Nine uses the format as singular showcases. Each character gets a signature tune, makes their proposed splash, and then basically disappears from the narrative.
This allows for more interaction between Guido and himself, and this is Nine‘s most telling misstep. In order to enjoy such indulgence, we have to sympathize with such a lout. We have to appreciate his trials and tribulations, be won over by his wry, subversive smile, and acknowledge that, while flawed, he is still a fine man. Nine lacks all of these elements, even with actor supreme Day-Lewis giving it his best unshaven auteur shot. While far more Godard than Fellini in appearance, the intense performer just can’t turn Guido into a loveable cad. He gets the song and dance moves down fairly well, and his voice is pleasant. But we have to cheer for our lead, not merely tolerate him. Marshall, on the other hand, treats him like a throwaway, a necessary element to get us to each of his ladies’ spot in the limelight.
It would be nice to say that these lofty women elevate Nine into something watchable. Sadly, only Ms. Cotillard gives anything remotely resembling a three dimensional performance. Dame Dench is like a crotchety old Supreme Being lording over things with a wisdom born straight out of a script, not life experience while Ms. Cruz seems capable of little except flashing her ass and babbling like a baby. Some in the cast aren’t even this lucky. Ms. Lady Lumps gets the showstopper, but then Marshall stages it like some manner of Beach Blanket Bordello. She’s a cipher, as is the equally empty Kidman. And though it is not meant to be disrespectful, Sophia Loren needs to go back to the plastic surgeons that turned her into a Madame Tussaud’s version of herself and get all those Lira she paid back.
Of course, if Marshall had been truly inspired to do something radical or different with this show, we’d forgive Nine‘s frequent foibles. Instead, he puts all the musical numbers on a mock-up of Guido’s next project, a studio-bound look at Italy nested safely inside Rome’s famed Cinecitta. This locks him down to one way of presenting the songs. Instead of opening up the material to play around the city that symbolizes much of what Nine stands for, he keeps everything trapped between scaffolds and electrical cables, more or less turning a movie musical into a stage version all over again. Such a conceit may have worked for Chicago, but as recent revamps like Hairspray and Mamma Mia! have shown, taking things beyond the norm can be surprisingly effective.
Sadly, Nine is not. In fact, it’s downright irritating. As the bombast tries to blow you out of the seat, as the various riffs on better, more meaningful films fly by, as Day-Lewis and his costars try to enliven what is already a zombified set list, we care less and less about what is going on. By the end, when Guido is in full blown epiphany mode, our desire to stick with his selfishness dwindles. Then Marshall mandates a curtain callback for all involved. All we can do is pray for a major set disaster. The movie musical can still be a splendid bit of escapism. With Nine, the only thing you’ll want to flee is the movie theater itself.