I rarely watch musicals. It isn’t a genre of filmmaking that gets me excited or has ever struck my curiosity in any particular fashion. This made my reaction to the trailer to Rob Marshall’s latest grandiose and lavish production, Nine, all the more surprising, even to myself. From the moment the trailer ended with that powerful lines of ‘Be Italian’, I knew that I’d be in line for the film on opening weekend. I believe it was the audacity of the trailer which aroused my interest. It didn’t explain anything about the story, although anyone familiar with Federico’s Fellini’s 8 ½ or the Tony award winning show upon which Nine is based arguably had a relatively clear idea. In those two and a half minutes, I was transported to a world in which the arts of song, dance and filmmaking are married together to concoct tantalizing escapism. Would the actual film deliver on such a promise however?
Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis), or ‘Maestro’ as he is lovingly referred by colleagues and fans alike, is an Italian film director whose early works captured the imaginations and hearts of movie goers worldwide. Through a light and comical press conference scene, the story quickly establishes that the director’s last few efforts were not up to par, but the producers claim next outing promises to be something for the ages, something that will exemplify the very best of, what else, Italia. In fact, that is the very title of this next venture, Italia. The producer is ready, the set design crew is ready, and so is his faithful and witty costume designer, played by dame Judi Dench. The great starlet of the hour, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman) has even been attached to the project in the lead role. There is but one slight hurdle to overcome before filming can commence: a script needs to be written. Guido hasn’t the faintest idea what his story is about, and the stress begins to mount on his shoulders as the production team grow increasingly impatient. All the while, Guido takes refuge (and possibly searches for inspiration) in the many love lives he juggles, most notably with his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and Carla (Penelope Cruz). Before we know it, an American magazine journalist (Kate Hudson) is also trying to seduce him. Let us not forget of course that the Maestro also has imaginary discussions with his late mother, who takes the form here of Sophie Lauren.
With a decidedly stunning cast, a director with previous experience in the genre of film musicals (he brought the 2002 Academy award winning Chicago to life) and, lest we forget, a kick ass trailer, how does Nine play out after all? To put it bluntly, the film delivers both the best and worst of musicals, or at least what fall into my definitions of best and worst qualities musicals can espouse. On a positive note, the cast is, almost without exception, irresistible. Of course, if you don’t enjoy seeing Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench and Nicole Kidman on the screen at the same time…then I suppose you might be in trouble if you choose to see the film obviously, but I highly suspect that such a category envelopes a clear minority of movie goers. Lewis’ Italian accent took a few lines to grow accustomed to since I often find adopting Italian accents can more often produce less convincing results than adopting an American accent (naturally, I am comparing the accents the English actor adopted for his Nine and is previous work, There Will Be Blood), but all the necessary eccentricities and the ‘devil may care’ attitude of a man in Guido’s position are present. The Maestro is a man as adept, if not more so, at writing love stories for his own life than writing one for is next project. His wife Louisa used to be a fine actress and in fact saw her career be born on the set of one of Guido’s previous movies. While their love may have been the stuff of fairytales, the director’s devotion is now split between his wife and the stunning, playful and rather needy Caro. Their escapades are quite light hearted and embedded with a sexual intensity too irresistible for anybody. His life distracts him from work on this bold but empty movie project just as his work on this bold but empty movie project distracts him from life. Daniel Day Lewis brings an undeniable charm and energy to the character of Guido, which is pretty to be expected from an actor of his calibre and history of truly getting into the roles he is hired to interpret. I don’t if what Lewis practices is what film buffs and scholars describe as ‘method acting,’ but however you want to name his style, it works bloody well. While Lewis may not be as big here as he was in There Will Be Blood, there is an eccentricity to the performance reminiscent of what many of us attribute to those who are members of the artist community. Some flare, some tempers, volatile emotions and such. With a supporting cast as vast and glamorous as the one found in Nine, the film should be forgiven if not everyone feels equally important to the story and character interactions. Honestly, how does one juggle with supporting actors the likes of Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Marion Cotillard and Judi Dench? Something has to give sooner or later. Of that bunch, I’d wager that the ‘loser’ is Nicole Kidman, who only appears reasonably late in the film and, even then, for not very long. Her character, it is hinted, also had a romantic involvement of sorts with Guido, although this is never fully developed and Kidman essentially leaves as quickly as she arrived. Cruz is allotted more screen time, which is fine by me given how I’ve often thought she was a better actress, but her character is sadly a little bit typical. She is the needy, sexy little sideline thing whose emotional grip on her own husband is fast slipping and wishes to be alone with Guido, despite the fact that the latter is married. It’s a fine performance, I thought Cruz was having some good fun with the role, which works quite well otherwise the character would have felt rather bland. Cotillard is given some real emotional weight in the film however, and her performance only improves as the story moves along. Honestly, the latter part of the film does showcase some very solid moments from the French actress. Dame Judi Dench is the sassy costume designer, and in my mind Dench can practically do no wrong, so no complaints from me on that point. Hudson doesn’t appear too much, but she is alright as well. Nothing spectacular, but as the American fashion/pop culture journalist taken aback by Guido’s…sexiness? popularity? eccentricity? she is adequate. Truth be told, the more I think of it, the more her character comes off as a mediocre ploy to further test Guido’s faithfulness towards his lovely wife.
I’ve done a fair amount of chit-chatting thus far about the story and acting, but this is a musical after all, so is the music any good? Well, the reason why I saved this section of the review for later is because I am as musically inept as a 5 year old. I have little to no knowledge of what constitutes a good song, and my familiarity with the musical genre within the art of film is minimal at best. Alright then, let’s get this monster out of the way finally: the music is mostly good. There are a handful of very catchy tunes that my mind retained as I walked out of the theatre. Dench’s ‘Folies Bergères’ (for which she sings a bit in French. From the perspective of a movie goer who speaks that tongue, she has a pretty darn good accent!), Hudson’s ‘Cinema Italiano’, Cotillard’s ‘My Husband Makes Movies’ and Fergie’s (!) ‘Be Italian’ were all superb. Cruz’s ‘A Call From the Vatican’ and Sophie Lauren’s ‘Guarda la Luna’ were fine. The rest were more of a mixed bag. At times, particularly as during the songs performed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman, that I felt the songwriters were trying to put too much story and explanations of emotions into the lyrics. Some verses sounded awkward in that the performers were trying to shove too many words into lines. As I wrote already, my musical competency is quite limited, so I may not be the best person to articulate these issues, but suffice to say that for the most part the songs were catchy, touching and amusing, with the few disappointing exceptions I mentioned.
The one thing that always troubles me about musicals is how the worst ones always require the movie to stop for the actors to break out into song. For a few minutes the story simply does not move forward. Nine…kind of, sort of tries to work around this but I don’t think it succeeds entirely. The musical numbers are often the emotions of what the characters are feeling at the time and provide some backstory to plotlines (as in Cotillard’s ‘My Husband Makes Movies’) while other times the songs are nicely integrated (somewhat) into the plot directly, as in Cruz’s ‘A Call From the Vatican’. Some are served through flashbacks (‘Be Italian’) or have a decidedly existential feel to them (‘Folies Bergères). Other times the movie really does stop for no reason (‘Cinema Italiano’, despite how catchy the song actually is). I guess it is a mixed bag overall.
Nine is a flashy film, filled with memorable set and costume design, handsome cinematography but sometimes mediocre editing. It features a story that rests on the shoulders of the actors and songs due to a certain lack of originality, but thankfully those two elements, acting and song, are both rather swell for the most part. I think what I felt most of all as I left the theatre was how, even though the film is imperfect, it was worth the 12 dollars. It’s pretty to look at and sounds great, kind of like real musicals performed on stage, only this time you don’t have to pay as much.