As anyone that reads me regularly already knows, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 is one of my all-time favorite films. As a result, my anticipation for Rob Marshall’s Nine, an adaptation of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, which itself was an adaptation of Fellini’s 1963 classic, was through the roof. Particularly because I viewed this as a cinematic re-imagining and not an attempt to remake a classic as much as it is influenced by it. This gives Nine something of a different meaning for me as I see it as a colorful (and musical) companion piece to Fellini’s film. The B-side to Fellini’s A. Where it falls short is the missing personal touch that caused Fellini to make his film about an agonizing film director in the first place, but at times Nine satisfies and the finale is worth the wait.
Stepping into the shoes made iconic by Marcello Mastroianni, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini. Set in the mid-1960s Italy, Nine opens as Guido is giving a press conference announcing the start of production on his new film, the grandly titled Italia. The only problem, there’s no script and Guido is floundering after a couple of recent “flops.” Unfortunately for him his problems don’t end with his lack of inspiration. While he ducks producers and crew members he’s also juggling his mistress, his wife, his muse, his mother and his haunting past in hopes of coming out the other end with a career rejuvenating film and as few scars as possible.
Much like the original film women bounce in and out of Guido’s story in moments of reality and fantasy. There’s his lovely mistress Carla played to absolute perfection by Penelope Cruz who has somehow managed to perfect the act of being both amazingly stunning as well as adorably dimwitted. “I’m going to wait for you here… with my legs open,” she pouts from her bed as Guido heads out the door. It’s comedic, cute and pathetic all at the same time and Cruz commits to it.
Marion Cotillard plays Guido’s wife Luisa and is without a doubt the savior of the film. In all honesty, the first act of the film drags until Luisa arrives and takes over the emotional core of the story. Some of this is owed to the slow set up, but most of it is due to Cotillard’s ability to emote and deliver the first truly emotional musical number of the film. Speaking of musical numbers, the showstopper is Fergie’s sand strewn parade.
As Saraghina, Fergie and her fleet of scantily clad co-performers deliver an extraordinarily choreographed number as Guido remembers the prostitute who offered him romantic advice at a very, very young age. The only problem is that while there is sex appeal and beauty in what is seen on screen, and it is the one performance that really stands out in terms of size and spectacle, it does little to nothing for the story. The same can be said for the majority of the songs in the film.
I like Kate Hudson and I didn’t mind her here as a Vogue journalist, but I can’t say her role was entirely necessary, as much as it added a needed second big performance piece. Nicole Kidman playing Guido’s muse is limited in her role and does little more than stand around, outside of singing the film’s most recognizable tune, “Unusual Way.” Judi Dench takes on the role of Lilli, Guido’s confidante and costume designer and plays a satisfying sounding board, even if her musical number doesn’t exactly hit on all notes.
As Guido, Day-Lewis pulls it off, but I wouldn’t say he hits it out of the park. Javier Bardem was originally set to take on the part, but dropped out and I’m not entirely convinced he would have won me over either. Daniel Day-Lewis brings an obvious air of quality to the production, but overall I think the film would have truly benefit by casting an Italian in the lead role, perhaps even an unknown. Surrounded by Marshall’s ocean of beautiful supporting actresses I find it hard to believe the film hinged on a known name as the male lead.
Finally, screen icon Sophia Loren plays Guido’s mother in a role it only seems right she take on after having not been in a film since 2004. The role isn’t large, but it seems appropriate to have at least one Italian amongst the film’s top-billed.
Nine wasn’t the big spectacle I hoped it would become. Then again, it isn’t the film I expected it would be. The songs didn’t seem to rise to the occasion other than the couple I mentioned and outside of Cotillard and Cruz, the cast didn’t really do much for me either.
The saving grace is Dion Beebe’s beautiful cinematography, Cotillard, Cruz and a superb ending that is delicately delivered and adds an excellent final touch tying up loose ends and book-ending the feature with its opening number, which will most likely be confusing for those that aren’t familiar with Fellini’s original film. Everything said, I’m interested in seeing it again. I am leaving room for this one to grow on me.