Rob Marshall is no stranger to the musical genre; just eight years ago he enjoyed considerable success adapting Bob Fosse’s iconic crime satire Chicago, both critical and monetary, from Broadway to the silver screen. His film wound up inexplicably snagging the Best Picture award at the Oscars, and even if Marshall himself got black flagged at the last lap in the Best Director race his efforts still led to Chicago doing some serious clean-up at the show, taking home almost half of the categories it received nominations for. So the idea of Marshall taking on another musical adaptation sounds great on paper; Chicago certainly possessed an irresistible, glitzy veneer and inexhaustible verve that made the movie incredibly entertaining, but Marshall never let the style overwhelm the substance of the film and took great care in retaining the subtext and commentary of the original work in his interpretation.
But that Marshall, it seems, is missing in action in 2009’s adaptation of Maury Yeston’s and Arthur Kopit’s play Nine, a musical based on Italian neo-realist/surrealist maestro Federico Fellini’s magnum opus, 8 & 1/2. I have never seen the play for myself, so for all I know the film’s problems could stem from the story it’s adapting. But regardless of whether the play’s sensibilities lean toward style over substance or a marriage of both, Marshall’s film does exactly the opposite of what made Chicago such a successful, complete picture; Nine doesn’t have a whole lot to say, and what it does have to say is not only trite but also embarrassingly ignorant of what makes its great ancestor, 8 & 1/2, a masterpiece.
The synopsis of both the stage musical and Marshall’s film is more or less the same as that of Fellini’s film; Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world-famous Italian filmmaker, is knee-deep in the process of making his latest picture despite his failing creative drive leaving him with no script for his cast and crew to work from. Compounding the pressure he feels to finish his film are his innumerable romantic relationships; his tenuous marriage to Luisa (Marion Cotillard), the only woman he truly loves, his affair with mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), his infatuation with international starlet and his personal muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), and his flirtations with an American journalist (Kate Hudson). Facing mounting demands from his producer to get the film off the ground while becoming entangled in a web of his own infidelities, Guido’s life story begins to weave into his film and take on an existential bent.
Which is where the film’s problems really come into play. All of those elements are missing; it feels like Marshall has shot 8 & 1/2 For Dummies, with musical numbers to buffer the film’s weaknesses. Nine isn’t just any musical; it’s a tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers Italy has ever produced as well as a remake (of sorts) of one of his best pictures. On a project like this, the filmmaker doesn’t have much wiggle room in which to play fast and loose with the source material and yet Marshall does just that. The answers to Guido’s queries and the solutions to his woes seem to be that he needs to “be Italian”, and being Italian appears to involve driving bitchin’ sports cars, wearing sunglasses at all times and in all places, smoking cigarettes, and collecting a personal harem. Nine skirts around an honest dissection of Guido’s troubles and only addresses them half-heartedly; ostensibly, Guido comes around to the same catharsis as the character Marcello Mastroianni embodied in the original film but without ever understanding or caring about why. The end result is superficial and empty, a film with only a cursory interest in its lead character and his personal struggles. This is not to say that I expected 8 & 1/2 Part 2, but rather an assured and thoughtful reinterpretation of both of the original cinematic and theatrical productions, and in the end I got neither.
Even putting aside my personal adulation for Fellini’s work, Nine‘s style-centric sensibilities reads as being objectively antithetical not just to the original movie but also to the Italian cinema that the film casually references. (Kate Hudson’s glitzy dance number, for instance, name-drops neo-realism, a cinematic movement that while not uniquely Italian is more closely associated to the country and it’s film culture than any other.) There’s a distinct clash between the movies that Nine professes to admire and the movie that Nine actually is; classic Italian cinema is deeply embedded in reality and concerned with being as true to life as possible while Nine behaves as though it’s above both. Granted that musicals are melodramatic and as unreal as movies can get, but there’s never a concerted effort to connect with the films that led to its birth. It’s a central incongruity that in the end makes Nine feel uneven and deprives it of credibility.
Truth be told, Nine could have added up to an entertaining if incredibly slight experience in spite of the void of substance at its core if the encompassing spectacle passed muster, but all of the energy Marshall brought to his last foray into the musical genre seems to have been expended solely on that particular endeavor, leaving him with none to bring to bear in his latest. If only one thing could be treated as a guaranteed death knell for any musical, be it cinematic or theatrical, it’s “boring musical numbers”, and if that’s the case then Nine may as well be dead on arrival. Musicals can survive on the strength of that unique identifying feature (such asin the case of Moulin Rouge, for example, a movie with a less-than-interesting story that nonetheless thrives by virtue of its excellent song and dance routines), and maybe Nine wouldn’t have fallen so far short of expectations had Marshall constructed eye-popping musical numbers to draw us in. But almost all of them feel slack and incredibly loose; the performers try their best but can’t do much to overcome the lethargy of the choreography or the dispassionate musicianship of the orchestra.
It’s not all bad; the film has bright spots in its cast, the most notable unsurprisingly turning out to be Daniel Day-Lewis as the embattled director, and his quieter moments with Marion Cotillard easily turn into the very best that the film has to offer. But they’re few and far between and nowhere near enough to resuscitate Marshall’s movie. Disparities between Nine and 8 & 1/2— as well as Italian cinema in general and maybe Yeston’s play– aside, maybe Marshall’s real problem is that he feels little need to try to differentiate this film from his last major success. If this is 8 & 1/2 Lite, then it’s also Chicago 2, but this isn’t a story that benefits from or strictly needs the old razzle dazzle. But it’s not enough to be content resting on one’s laurels, and that lackadaisical approach Marshall seems to have taken to bringing Nine to life does neither director nor film any favors. If the film had its own soul and its own character it may have worked; bereft of both it ends up a disaster.