December 21, 2009

MOVIES: Nine (Rob Marshall, 2009)

Why is it that no one can find a Hollywood leading man who can sing when they're casting musicals? Richard Gere in Chicago, Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, and now Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine. You'd think they wanted us to hate musicals.

Nine is based loosely on Fellini's 8 1/2, and tells the story of Guido Contini, a Fellini-esque film director in 1965 Italy who's suffering from writer's block. He runs off to a resort town with his mistress in search of inspiration, but finds none; he spends the weekend daydreaming about the women in his life, and his daydreams take the form of musical numbers.

Day-Lewis croaks his way through his two songs, and is fortunately not asked to do any real dancing. And even if he were a musical leading man, I don't think he'd be the right choice for this role. Guido should be suave and charming; we need to understand why all of these women are so drawn to him (not all of them in romantic fashion). Day-Lewis is a chilly presence, and his inexpressive woodblock of a face doesn't help any. In the show's Broadway revival a few years back, the role was played by Antonio Banderas; he would have been a better choice for the film.

The heavy musical lifting is left to the all-star cast of women, each of whom gets a musical number (Marion Cotillard, as Guido's wife, gets two). Coming off best are Fergie, who delivers a delightful performance of the score's best song, "Be Italian," which also offers the movie's most interesting staging/choreography, involving sand and tambourines. Penelope Cruz also does well with "A Call from the Vatican," which isn't much more than an excuse to thrash about the floor and be fabulously sexy, but hey! who does fabulously sexy better these days than Cruz?

Less successful is Kate Hudson, whose "Cinema Italiano" (one of the two songs newly written for the film) is little more than an excuse to put her in a 60s go-go outfit and remind us that her mother was a lot hotter during her own go-go days on Laugh-In. The biggest problem, though, and the reason the musical's more admired than loved, is that the songs mostly aren't very good; they aren't particularly tuneful (Go ahead, hum "A Call from the Vatican." I dare you.) and they have a tendency to bluntly spell out what ought to be subtextual. Both of Cotillard's songs -- "My Husband Makes Movies" and the new "Take It All" -- are particularly weak in this regard, clubbing the audience over the head with stuff that we'd figured out about ten minutes before the songs began.

The other women on hand -- Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman (who grows more creepily animatronic with every movie she makes), and Sophia Loren -- deliver their songs adequately, though you get the sense that Loren's number was written for someone who doesn't sing much.

So, a few good moments, enough that you might want to rent the DVD if you're a fan of any of the actors, and if you're a fan of the musical, you'll probably want to see it on a big screen just to see what's been made of it. But beyond that, I can't really recommend it.

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