Federico Fellini's Film that Fostered Nine
Federico Fellini's Film that Fostered Nine
The Tony Award Winning Productions
"You kill your film when you talk about it," Daniel Day-Lewis purrs in his surprisingly sexy Italian accent as soon as Rob Marshall's movie begins as he eases into the role of Guido Contini with complete conviction.
Throughout Nine, Contini is perpetually driven both wild by lascivious lust and irritably insane by director's block since the filmmaker has neither written a single page of his script nor figured out how to precisely "write" with his camera for his upcoming Italia.
As Conini, Day-Lewis fittingly channels Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni who had originated the inspiration for Day-Lewis' role in Fellini's 8 1/2 before it became a Tony award-winning musical in both '82 and '03. Yet more intriguingly, Day-Lewis also taps directly into the spirit of Bob Fosse who made a Felliniesque largely autobiographical portrait of working and playing himself to death in All That Jazz.
Aside from announcing itself as quite Felliniesque-- for the portion of the audience who knows the movie's origins-- the opening of Nine and its warning regarding the delicate nature of filmmaking as attempting to breathe life into the "death" of the work on celluloid makes you subtly acknowledge those who have laid down their lives in pursuit of this particular art form.
The blend of cinema, truth, dreams, and illusions-- all one in the same to Fellini-- permeates throughout Rob Marshall's third feature, which was adapted by two men who knew the terrain very well. The men who transferred the movie from the musical to movie form on the page consisted of both Michael Tolkin who wrote the Hollywood insider dark comedy The Player along with co-writer Anthony Minghella whose work on Nine was sadly the last screenplay that The English Patient, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley filmmaker completed before his early death.
Figuratively hiding behind words about the death of cinema and literally as his next picture hasn't even been brought to life yet, since Guido Contini routinely escapes into fantasies starring the women who've made up his past, present and future, he decides to escape for real, ditching his Roman press conference in his Fiat Alfa Spyder as the movie opens.
Yet, no matter how far and how fast he goes, the Fiat can't handle all of Guido's baggage. Thus, to form the rather loose plot, the baggage begins to spill out across the screen when the filmmaker's past and crew catches up with him as professional and personal crises coincide, ten days before the cameras are scheduled to begin rolling on nothing but his muse, played by Nicole Kidman in a role written for her by Minghella.
Obviously it's difficult to adapt Fellini's 8 1/2 source material on even the most basic structural level as the Italian anti-structure masterpiece is the film director's version of Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, it's also become obvious that Fellini's wild and carnivalesque landscape of virgins, whores, mothers, wives, and lovers only works when Federico Fellini is the one making a Federico Fellini film.
While Day-Lewis thrilled me more for his embodiment of the character than in his capable chops as a singer and dancer--impressively contorting his tall and thin frame in between railings and stair cases-- I longed for a rewrite of Guido Contini as a "player" rather than a Tolkin Player.
Essentially, I imagined what would've happened to the film if Guido Contini had been formulated (whether by Day-Lewis or another actor) with the energy of John Cusack, charm of Robert Downey Jr., and/or suave elegance of Cary Grant to try and give the over-the-hill playboy a new twist. Of course, being pretentious is the key to being Guido Contini but we should get the sense that he has something more to offer than his accent and movies to keep us as captivated as the women.
Unlike the cheery yet embarrassingly awful Mamma Mia!, Rob Marshall's film which at least takes the director back in the right direction of the movie musical after the picturesque yet plodding Memoirs of a Geisha, is nonetheless one very icy song and dance picture.
Far more troublesome as a film, however is the fact that it's as emotionally vacant as Geisha since the thinly drawn one-dimensional women of Nine are Geisha like in their beauty but harder to empathize with or understand than Guido Contini's nonexistent screenplay especially when they're throwing themselves at the exhausted Contini.
Fortunately, the women all have their moments to shine including Nicole Kidman's La Dolce Vita backdrop to give the film's biggest speech, Kate Hudson's mod "Cinema Italiano" number with more words than a screwball comedy in a sequence sure to make you recall her mother Goldie Hawn during her Laugh In days, and Penelope Cruz's over-sexed rope dance that steams up the celluloid like it was inside the nitrate canisters ready to ignite in Inglourious Basterds.
But ultimately Nine's standout performance is delivered by La Vie en Rose, Public Enemies and Love Me if You Dare star Marion Cotillard as Guido's long-suffering wife. However, in the film's shortest screen role with the greatest impact, Black Eyed Peas performer Fergie tackles the iconic prostitute on the beach from the original Fellini film.
And in stark contrast to 8 1/2's rather ridiculous, gaudy, and thinly veiled misogynistic "grotesque" characterization, Fergie fully embodies the sexuality of Saraghina who was the first woman to arouse the young, curious Guido and in Nine, she manages to seduce with Guidoesque impact as Fergie brings the house down with her rendition of the movie's best number "Be Italian."
Incidentally this sequence is so good that you don't even need to take my word for it as Fergie's big number and its corresponding title has become the most referenced tagline on the collection of posters made by The Weinstein Company's publicity department.
Still, overall it's the absolute opposite of a feel-good musical complete with an adulterous cad main character for whom we just can't root even if simply with the same repulsed yet fascinated revenge driven mode adopted by Johnny Depp's barber in Sweeney Todd nor the "Cell Block Tango" murderesses of Chicago since at least their characters were all fully fleshed out, even if they bared just as much flesh as the ladies of Nine.
While musicals are undoubtedly one of my biggest passions and I'm personally rooting for a major genre return in any variety including an Across the Universe rock opera, Walk the Line musical biopic, operas turned into stage musicals made for film like Rent or full-blown works on the scale of Dreamgirls, sadly Nine misses the mark of an effective musical because it fails to generate our empathy.
Still, overall Nine is a finely crafted but largely uneven venture that is nonetheless sure to be great Oscar bait because of its sheer star power and technical precision alone.
As dazzling as a Broadway show and with terrific achievements in the realm of editing and cinematography, at times, Nine reminded me of a smaller scale retread of the chaotic showstopping numbers in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge blended with the same lingerie shimmy messy sex appeal of Marshall's vastly superior Oscar winner, Chicago.
Unfortunately, more often than not it simply reaffirmed the thesis uttered by Kate Hudson's American journalist that "style is content." Or in the case of Nine, we gather that discussion has definitely killed Marshall's movie just as Guido Contini warned at the beginning since precious few moments come to life, despite his wondrously sexy Italian accent that tries to turn lies into gold... just not legitimately Oscar gold.
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FTC Disclosure: As is standard critical practice, I saw Nine at a free press screening of the film held by a local PR company on behalf of The Weinstein Company. Although we were encouraged by Fergie to "Be Italian," I already met this prerequisite before I attended the screening and seeing the movie in advance in no way impacted my response to the work overall.