Nine Is Not a 9.0, But It Tops ‘Chicago’

To put it bluntly, Nine is for anyone who did not like Chicago. While that may scare off a few million fans of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film, I still argue that those who read on are the wiser group. Chicago was repetitive, shallow, and frustratingly dull. It was a poor example of what movie musicals should be and can be when done right. The music just repeated what they already said in dialog for Pete’s sake! Director Rob Marshall put on a show with his costumes and choreography, but had no idea how to make a stage musical into a movie. Where was the narrative drive, expressive cinematography, and perhaps more importantly, who could possibly stand Renee Zellweger’s over-the-top, squinty-eyed Roxie Hart?

Nine, while still far from a perfect film, at least offers up a deluge of fine performances and an honest look at Hollywood narcissism before a disappointingly abrupt final act. Marshall, showing incredible improvements, lets his imagination run wild and his camera track the extravagance with just the right amount of flair. Yes, most of the song and dance routines are done on epic sized stages, but these events take place solely in our protagonists’ imagination, making them much easier to stomach than the unprompted turns in Chicago. The elaborate musical numbers are even more so, but the screenplay (by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella) is finely focused to the point of being a bit tedious.

Opening with a black and white shot of Daniel Day-Lewis in the black shades and matching suit he’ll wear for the film’s entirety, Nine follows writer/director Guido Contini’s quest to produce another masterpiece and the frustrations surrounding it. After a few self-described “flops”, Contini has painted himself into a corner with untruths. He lies to the press about his upcoming production. He lies to his wife, mistress, and nearly every other woman in his life to try to please each separately. He even lies to his lead actress about the status of the script (there is none). He has ten days before production starts, but he won’t stop looking for excuses as to why he’s not ready to shoot.

Guido is a hard man to identify with in this way. Enviable, yes – who wouldn’t want to have rugged good looks, countless beautiful women, and a god-like stature throughout Italy? But the character’s narcissism runs rampant. He wants to please everyone, but can never please himself. He acknowledges as much in his first vocal performance, “Guido’s Song”, when he sings, “I would like to be here / I would like to be there / I would like to be everywhere at once / I know that’s a contradiction in terms”. Despite this ambiguous sincerity, his real desires are impossible to peg. By the time the curtain drops (thankfully, it doesn’t literally do so), we’re no closer to knowing the real Contini – just the one he’d like us to see for now.

He’s a flawed character for sure, but still a damn entertaining one. Even if the audience sees his issues as small in the grand scheme of things, they are massive to him and it shows in Day Lewis’ every movement. He depicts Contini as a slouching, obtuse individual who pulls himself physically inward in an attempt to produce inner emotions. When they finally surface, it’s a brief fireball followed by sincere self-reflection. Again, the story’s final third is a bit lacking in the drama department, but Day-Lewis does his part to hold it together.

I should say Day-Lewis and Judi Dench salvage a conclusion beleaguered with lots of exposition in not a lot of time. The duo really comes through in the clutch after taking a side seat to the glamour of younger, prettier things for the film’s first two-thirds. Penelope Cruz, who earned her third Oscar nomination for the part, a sprightly Kate Hudson, and a stirring Marion Cotillard all shine brightly during their short, but vital scenes. After anticipating Hudson to be the film’s one giant flaw going in, it was refreshing to see her turn in some solid work especially next to such prestigious screen mates.

All of the actresses are obviously looking their best, but Marshall keeps them from being solely eye candy when they very easily could have been. Cruz’s first scene, a seduction via telephone played out in Guido’s mind with ropes and curtains, could have been limiting in the film’s later dramatic moments. It wasn’t thanks to Cruz’s interpretation of the sex-crazed mistress Guido desires and the deeply romantic sweetheart he gets. It also helps the film’s opening illustrates the deep, complicated passion our protagonist has for each woman in his life. Each one gets a dramatic entrance and a fervent greeting from Guido on an elaborate stage. His habits are as long lasting as they are embedded.

Here, in the film’s conception and early stages, a few undeniable similarities between Nine and Chicago perk up. Both are musicals. Both originated on stage. Both use the narrative as almost secondary propulsion. Yet the only purely negative parallel shared by Nine is its less than moving musical numbers. They’re dazzling to look at, of course, but there’s very little substance in them. Only Fergie’s powerful voice raises the hair on your neck during “Be Italian”, and it’s not the lyrics of Cotillard’s second number, “Take it All”, that stir you as much as she does. The rest are easily forgettable, even if Day-Lewis proves to have the pipes befitting of such a talent.

Day-Lewis is so admired, in fact, he gets his own featurette in the single disc’s bonus section. Sure, there are eight in total plus commentary by Marshall and three music videos, but Day-Lewis is the only star with his name in the title. Titled “The Incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis”, the five minute grouping of interviews and movie clips provides a good idea of what the rest of the bonus materials have in store. Though “The Women of Nine” stretches on for ten-minutes and “The Dancers of Nine” is a hasty but absorbing documentary on the background dancers’ casting competition, as a whole the group is only moderately educational and entertaining. The adequate nature and high quantity of the special features parallel the film’s slightly elevated mediocrity.

No, Nine did not deserve the Best Picture nomination some thought it did. In fact, The Weinstein Company should be quite happy it received the four nominations it did. It doesn’t reinvigorate the movie musical as some silly critics claimed its director’s predecessor did (Moulin Rouge! holds that honor, not Chicago). What it does is serve as a placeholder for the genre’s resurgence until the next showstopper comes along. Despite its flaws, it adequately exemplifies the most vital aspects of the movie musical (minus the great music). Well-choreographed dance numbers abound. Costumes and lighting take center stag Audiences even get the giddy entertainment of watching movie stars prove themselves as fine to passable singers. It’s just good entertainment, people. It’s certainly better than Chicago.

RATING 6 / 10