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Director's Block

Fantasy meets harsh reality as Rob Marshall takes on a Fellini classic.

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 HudsonNine thrashes about in search of "cinema" the way a child thrown into the deep end of a pool flails for a flotation device. Earlier this decade, watching choreographer turned director Rob Marshall make an incoherent, Oscar-anointed shambles out of Bob Fosse's Chicago — a movie aptly described by one critic as a musical for people who hate movie musicals — I wondered if Marshall had ever seen a screen musical before he got the assignment. Watching Nine, I began to wonder if Marshall has ever seen a movie other than his own.

A desperate bid by Marshall and embattled producer Harvey Weinstein to recapture the "magic" of their previous awards-season thoroughbred, Nine was adapted by The Player author Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella from a Tony-winning Broadway musical that itself transformed Fellini's acerbic self-portrait of a creatively blocked, serial-womanizing director into a treacly fable about getting in touch with one's inner child. Originally produced in 1982 with Raul Julia as the Fellini surrogate, Guido Contini, and revived two decades later with Antonio Banderas in the part, the show itself was never anyone's idea of a classic. But upon recently comparing the two stage versions at the New York Public Library's invaluable Theatre On Film and Tape archive, I was struck by how much theatrical lemonade director David Leveaux's revival was able to make out of the lemons of the stage original — by shortening or excising a couple of the more egregious songs and forgoing the initial production's stagnant, steam-bath set in favor of a more intimate, abstract use of space (at least until the stage turned into a giant fountain in act two).

For the film adaptation, in which Daniel Day-Lewis dons Guido's signature black hat, the writers have further 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 — wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penélope Cruz), mother (Sophia Loren), muse (Nicole Kidman), confidante (Judi Dench) — to one forgettable song apiece. Chalk that up as a small victory against Marshall's otherwise unstoppable kitsch offensive.

Daniel Day-Lewis appears rudderless as Guido.
David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.
Daniel Day-Lewis appears rudderless as Guido.

Extravagantly filmed on soundstages in London and locations in Rome — costumes studded with actual Swarovski crystalsNine 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, most of which take place on a soundstage where the sets for Contini's new film are under construction, and which Marshall uniformly shoots with one camera dollying back and forth on a semicircular track and another zooming in and out on the glittering, spangled couture. Those scenes are then haphazardly intercut with the movie's "real" action (to ease the audience's presumed anxiety at seeing characters spontaneously burst into song and dance), 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 hasn't appeared this rudderless in a role since the justly forgotten Argentine dental comedy Eversmile, New Jersey two decades ago.

There have been and will continue to be great movies made about the struggle of megalomaniacal directors to reconcile their life and work — Fosse made one with his own musical Fellini homage, All That Jazz, and Charlie Kaufman another just last year with Synecdoche, New York. Failing those high-water marks, Nine might at least have been a guiltily pleasurable burlesque, were Marshall not so intent on turning all his grandes dames into vamped-up grotesques. While Fergie emerges relatively unscathed, in part because her role — the feral prostitute Saraghina, from whom the chaste young Guido learns the facts of life — is meant to be a vamped-up grotesque, poor Hudson (as an enterprising Vogue reporter, dumbed down from the play's Cahiers du cinéma film critic) may never recover from gyrating her way through the atrocious "Cinema Italiano," a number that Marshall stages as something like Night of the Living Versace Runway Show. Wisely keeping her distance, 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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