Near the middle of Rob Marshall’s new film, Nine, an especially pretentious critic quips “Artists do their best work before they’re famous” while interviewing the lead character, filmmaker Guido Contini. Unfortunately Marshall proves his own rule with this adaptation of the 1982 Maury Yeston musical; almost a decade removed from 2002’s Academy Award Winning Chicago the director returns to musical theater with this fictional account of Frederico Fellini’s midlife crisis, and though the musical sequences burst with life, they do little else, damming the flow of an otherwise excellent story. It feels like an episode of Mad Men with softcore porn sporadically edited in—focuses on the dramatic narrative just long enough that the song-and-dance numbers feel especially embarassing.
The narrative follows Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a filmmaker faced with the pressure of producing a film while suffering writer’s block. Despite absconding from Rome with Carla (Penelope Cruz), his mistress, the production team hunts him down and sets up a remote studio, forcing him to begin work. In the drama that ensues we witness the decay of friendships, professional relationships, and a marriage. All of this is executed with excellence—the all-star cast unsurprisingly carries its weight with finesse. Marion Cotillard’s frail frame and sincere face lend the forlorn Luisa a natural weakness, while Penelope Cruz is as adorable (and sexy) as ever. Even the superfluous supporting cast, played by Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, and Kate Hudson, put their best foot forward. Sadly, “superfluous” is the perfect adjective for describing these characters; though well-acted, none plays a particularly important role—could be removed entirely and the film would actually be more coherent. Kate Hudson is on-screen for a total of five minutes; after delivering a handful of lines she quickly slides into “Italiano”, a useless song about tiny cars, movie stars, and other Suessical rhymes that furthers neither character development or plot. Then she disappears entirely. The woman adds absolutely nothing to this film. One wonders if Nine’s editors are really this awful or if they were forced to leave “Italiano” in because, hey, they got Kate Hudson.
This isn’t the only musical number that feels out-of-place; while bedridden from a blackout, Guido receives a call from the ever-seductive and bouncy Carla, who delivers her message with a song. After stumbling over the first few lines, Penelope Cruz delivers a melodious striptease which, though visually enjoyable, is entirely absurd, as made obvious by occasional cuts back to Guido in bed, complacently listening to his phone like a normal human being. Even “Be Italian”, the song heard behind the film’s trailer, serves vague and undeveloped purposes—is related to a childhood encounter on the beach with what may have been a prostitute. Nine’s two saving graces are “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Take it All”, both sung by Marion Cotillard; this isn’t because of any operatic qualities of the actress’s own—simply that her songs actually drive the narrative forward and provide emotional insight.
The entire story feels it would have benefited from a traditional, non-musical treatment. Don’t be mistaken—I’m a man who enjoys musicals. I’ve seen Phantom of the Opera countless times and at least ten other stage performances ranging from Camelot to Spamalot. It’s simply that Nine does everything musicals do wrong without getting much right. When the songs serve any purpose, they explicitly yell the characters’ thoughts and feelings at the audience, sequences are often jarringly introduced, throwing out any notion of reality or suspended disbelief, and the source material is predicated on esoteric biographical knowledge concerning a foreign film director most Americans are unfamiliar with. Though Nine could have been a very intelligent, well-crafted tale of one man’s fall from romantic and professional grace, it instead gets caught in the snares of its own uncertainty—cannot choose between mainstream appeal and the niche audience who would understand its abstract, largely non-sequitarial musical numbers. This one’s more likely to turn people away from the genre than pull them in—all but the most theatrically devout should stay away.