Fantasy Meets Harsh Reality as Rob Marshall Takes on a Fellini Classic in Nine
There's no city-clogging traffic jam in Nine, the musicalized version of Federico Fellini's movie-about-moviemaking urtext 8 1/2, but the result feels like the celluloid equivalent of a 12-car pileup. An assault on the senses from every conceivable direction — smash zooms, the ear-splitting eruption of something like music, the spectacle of a creature called Kate Hudson — Nine thrashes about in search of "cinema" the way a child thrown into the deep end of a pool flails for a flotation device.
Released in 1982, Fellini's 8 ½ is an acerbic self-portrait of Guido, a creatively blocked, serial womanizing director. It was revived two decades later as a Tony-winning Broadway play starring Antonio Banderas. The Player author Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella adapted it for the screen, a desperate bid by director Rob Marshall and embattled producer Harvey Weinstein to recapture the "magic" of their previous awards-season thoroughbred.
For the film adaptation, in which Daniel Day-Lewis dons Guido's signature black hat, the writers have slashed and burned, all but eviscerating the play's turgid second half (in which Contini mounted a musical film about the life of Casanova) and relegating the myriad women in Guido's life — including Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, and Judi Dench — to one forgettable song apiece. Chalk that up as a small victory against Marshall's otherwise unstoppable kitsch offensive.
Extravagantly filmed on soundstages in London and locations in Rome, Nine may be the shiniest package underneath this holiday movie season's tree, but all the Oscar winners in the world in front of and behind the camera can't disguise the absentee landlord at the helm. Perhaps hoping to channel something of Fellini's own improvisational energy, Marshall proceeds without a map, shooting in an arbitrary mixture of color and black and white while his cast slips in and out of a smattering of different accents. Then come the fantasy musical numbers haphazardly intercut with the movie's "real" action, resulting in the sort of unwieldy melange that is sometimes said to have been "saved in the editing room," but not in this case. At the center of the three rings, the eminently resourceful Day-Lewis appears rudderless.
Nine could have been a guiltily pleasurable burlesque, were Marshall not so intent on turning all his grande dames into vamped-up grotesques. Wisely keeping her distance, Marion Cotillard mostly lurks along the sidelines projecting a wounded visage before finally stepping into the spotlight for the movie's single moment of emotional sincerity. It's the only point at which Nine seems more than a total zero.
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