WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Renowned Italian director Guido Contini arrives in Rome to make a film, the only catch being that he has no idea what the film’s going to be about. He escapes from the pressure of the studio only to find his hideaway becomes equally complicated, what with his producer, crew, mistress and wife turning up more or less on top of each other.
Poor old Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis). The legendary film director is lauded everywhere he goes, but as he arrives in Rome’s Cinecittà studios in 1965, the maestro is facing a crisis; on the back of two flops, his producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) is pushing him to make a film called Italia, even though Guido has no script and no inspiration to come up with one.
In a panic, Guido flees the press conference and drives to the spa town of Anzio, giving strict instructions to be left alone – unless, that is, sultry mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) happens to call. Carla comes to Anzio but Guido sticks her in a grotty pensione, while Dante and the film crew, including motherly costumier Lilli (Judi Dench), descend on the hotel. Failing to find solace in the company of a Cardinal, or in memories of either his dead mother (Sophia Loren) or his childhood experience with a prostitute named Saraghina (Stacy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson), Contini is heartened to see his neglected wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) – although the reunion is cut short by Carla’s arrival at the hotel and subsequent overdose. Returning to Rome, Guido loses his leading lady Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman) as the production – and his personal life – both crumble to dust, leaving Dante to wonder if there is anything to be salvaged from the ruins.
While Rob Marshall deserves credit for helping to revitalise the musical in cinemas, you could make a good argument that filming the massively popular Chicago was like shooting fish in a barrel. Bringing a lesser-known 80s musical to the screen – as Bill Condon did with Dreamgirls – is a much harder sell, and Marshall makes heavy weather of realising Maury Yeston’s much-reshaped* Nine.
Like Chicago, the film alternates freely between real locations and elaborate staging, but this time there are numerous issues that all detract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film. Firstly, there’s the story itself, an introspective look at the life of a philandering egotist, based on the life and works of Federico Fellini; Day-Lewis inhabits the role as usual, but he’s awfully hard to identify with – crucially, there’s no evidence (apart from everyone else’s fawning adulation) that Contini has done anything of value. And because the story is about Guido not being able to create, it becomes stilted and episodic, with each of the women in his life taking turns to have a sing.
The songs are the second problem. Nine begins, on stage, with an opening reminiscent of a seedy Miss World-type pageant, and continues in a poor vein with Guido’s first song, a shouty, unmelodic number which stuffs hundreds of words into each line. Cruz’s seductive song is memorable only for the performer’s contortions and (lack of) costume, while ‘Folies Bergères’ seems terribly pointless, however nice it is to see Judi Dench glamming up.
Things improve with Fergie’s sultry rendition of ‘Be Italian’, the choreography recalling Chicago’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, while Luisa’s ‘My Husband Makes Movies’ is extremely heartfelt. Meanwhile, an interlude with Kate Hudson’s sassy journalist Stephanie exists solely to showcase the new song ‘Cinema Italiano’, which is fun and upbeat but suffers from the same verbosity as many of the other songs. Finally, ‘Unusual Way’ is good, but totally undermined by casting Kidman as the voluptuous Claudia; however shallow this point may be, it’s surely crazy to cast the lithe Australian as an ersatz Anita Ekberg, especially in that style of dress. Even with this caveat, Marshall makes all his actresses look terrific, including both Dench and Sophia Loren (whose song to Giuseppe Spitaleri’s young Guido, ‘Guarda La Luna’ is something-and-nothing).
So, Nine is a musical about a self-pitying womaniser which lacks both drama and memorable tunes. It also fails to say much about religion, cinema or even Italy, typified by a curious compendium of Italianate accents, and botches its conclusion with a daft curtain call of actors and actresses – perhaps Marshall optimistically thought cinemagoers would be swept up enough to stand and applaud. On the other hand, I’m loathe to write the film off completely: it’s shot with a certain amount of style, the locations (especially in Rome) look gorgeous, and I definitely appreciated some of the songs more on a second hearing compared to my first encounter with the film, when in all honesty I struggled to stay awake. Also, while I continued to be bored by Contini’s selfishness, Cruz and particularly Cotillard made sympathetic figures of, respectively, Carla and Luisa. I may well watch Nine again in a few years and find it an unheralded masterpiece.
As anyone with more than a passing interest in musicals knows well, there are some terrific songs in otherwise forgettable shows, just as there are often one or two lousy songs in musicals that remain incredibly popular. A musical with a weak storyline and without a show-stopping number will never prosper, however, and this is why Nine has to be considered – at present – a failure. It would be cute to give Nine a score of nine, and it almost deserves it; but in the end that would reflect too positively on a film which has bright spots, and a simmering sensuality throughout, but overall fails to engage or satisfy on a narrative or musical level. At a push, 8 ½.
NOTES: It would go beyond my self-imposed remit – and, frankly, patience – to detail the differences between the stage musical and the film. I understand, from Wikipedia, that they are considerable, with many songs chopped and a few new ones added.