Nine -- Film Review

Any number of movies have served as the basis for stage musicals -- even "Gone With the Wind" was bravely attempted, though with predictable results. But it's fairly unusual and probably not a good idea to bring such musicals back into their original medium. One of the rare instances when it did work was Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," which turned into a Broadway tuner, "Sweet Charity" (by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields), and then became a pretty terrific Bob Fosse musical film. So understandably, the Weinstein Co. and a host of producers thought lightning might strike twice with Fellini's " 8 1/2," which inspired the Tony-winning 1982 musical "Nine." Lightning does not strike the same place twice.

The disappointments here are many, from a starry cast the film ill-uses to flat musical numbers that never fully integrate into the dramatic story. The only easy prediction is that "Nine" is not going to revive the slumbering musical-film genre. Boxoffice looks problematic, too, but moviegoers are going to be enticed by that cast, and the Weinstein brothers certainly know how to promote a movie. So modest returns are the most optimistic possibility.

Fellini's 1963 masterpiece takes you inside a man's head. Because he happens to be a movie director, his daydreams and recollections are visually striking, but more to the point, you sense, through the nightmares of an artist blocked from his own creativity, everything that is going on inside this man. In "Nine," written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, you get a tired filmmaker with too many women in his life and not enough movie ideas.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, and to his credit, it's not Marcello Mastroianni's Guido but a new character, more burnt out than blocked and increasingly sickened by his womanizing.

Despite the English language, the film insists it still is 1965 Rome, where black-and-white, Cinecitta Studios, Vespas, Ray-Bans and all things Italian reign in the world of fashion and Western culture. A new Guido Contini movie is about to start production, but no script exists. In despair, Guido flees to a seaside spa. Within a day, his mistress (Penelope Cruz, all legs and pleading libido), demanding producer, production team and then his wife (Marion Cotillard, unable to adapt well to misery) take up residence in the small town.

Sad romantic trysts and unproductive production meetings ensue. In his imagination, all the women of his life, from his mother (a rather saintly Sophia Loren) to that whore (Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas) on the beach from his childhood materialize. Each has her production number. Then, the numbers done, the movie returns to dreary melodrama.

Under Rob Marshall's awkward direction, it really is that segmented: melodrama, song, melodrama, song. The musical numbers clearly take place on a huge stage (at the U.K.'s Shepperton Studios), while the rest of the movie ostensibly occurs in Italy, though it often looks pretty stage-bound, too.

Marshall's film musical "Chicago" won the Oscar for best film, but one wonders why, when the musical numbers were all pieced together in such tiny cuts, one rarely caught anybody singing or dancing for long. Marshall is up to old tricks here as the numbers are all a matter of edits, zooms and multiple angles. His actors sing pretty damn well, but none is a dancer, so he has to disguise this in every number.

Maury Yeston's music and lyrics are serviceable but often seem out of touch with the emotions Guido or his many women are experiencing. Marshall, who choreographs with John DeLuca, uses them to slam down high-concept, intricately staged Broadway numbers that interrupt action in this Italian seaside town.

Nicole Kidman as Guido's "muse" and Kate Hudson as an on-the-make American journalist get to do little. Judi Dench is wonderful and wise as Guido's costume designer-cum-therapist and, fortunately, is not asked to do much in terms of singing and dancing.

Fergie is kind of fun as a childhood fantasy of sexuality -- in the original film, the whore is fat and slovenly. Cruz and Cotillard get real characters to play, but they're the stuff of bad soap opera.

Then there's Day-Lewis. He is an incredibly sexy man and performs all the right moves. The problem is, he keeps performing those same moves over and over, so one experiences not so much artistic angst but a guy trying to sober up from a two-week binge. Sporting a scruffy beard and running a hand through long hair only goes so far.

With "Nine," one never gets inside the protagonist's head. So one can't decide whether his problem is too many women or too many musical numbers breaking out for no reason.

Opens: Dec. 18 (the Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: Relativity Media, Marc Platt Prods.
Rated PG-13, 117 minutes
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