Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 12/24/09 16:00:00

"Life's A Stage...Again...And Again"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Nine is a film about a director who has no clue what film he wants to make - made by a guy who also has no understanding of the film he's making. Something was clear about the lethargic mess of Memoirs of a Geisha that suggested Rob Marshall wouldn't be comfortable in a sweeping narrative without the acoutrement of song bursts. Returning to his theatrical roots in another carefully-timed bit of Oscar baiting, Marshall rolls into his wheelhouse with all the creativity of a writer replacing adjectives and hoping the audience doesn't know it. Nine is a film about a great many things: love, passion, beauty, film, art, lust, chauvinistic fantasy, Madonna whores and a time and a place built into our minds as the end-all, be-all of romantic ecstacy. Rob Marshall has neither the personal touch to connect to his main character nor the foresight to realize that a dreamlike cinematic musical about the cinema may not be best served on a damn soundstage.

Nine is a story based on Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, based autobiographically on his own creative block. The doppelganger this time around is Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) who, in 1965, has announced his next film project but in true Ed Wood style only has a poster and no script. As the pressures mount to come up with an idea for "Italia", Guido takes off for a seaside spa and makes two phone calls. One is to his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), whose emotions Guido plays pong with, inviting and disinviting her to join him. The other is to his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz), married herself but so willing to indulge Guido in any begging call and sexual fantasy he comes up with.

Thus continues Guido's mindtrip through the women in his life. One by one we flash upon someone from his past or his present who then sing about their feelings for him or taught him some invaluable life lesson that's turned him into a contradictory mess. There's Claudia (Nicole Kidman) the regular star of his pictures who wants Guido to love her out from behind the camera. Stephanie (Kate Hudson) is an American reporter so infatuated with his work that she practically jumps on top of him in his moment of weakness. Guido's mama (Sophia Loren) is called upon at times and he remembers his first encounter with a whore (Fergie). Only his costume mistress, Lilli (Judi Dench), appears less interested in bedding him than maternally responding to his every need.

Those doing the math in their head will realize that only amounts to eight characters when the title refers to either his ninth picture or the age when his mamma mia whore issues began. If the young Guido counts as a ninth character, so be it, but its far down on the list of all the things that don't add up about this adaptation. Guido's personal struggles as a filmmaker never finds the kind of enlightenment necessary to express the sort of romantic fantasy he's been searching for all his life. Unable to find peace in the arms of a beautiful wife or a hot-blooded comare, Guido using a dream world of his home country to escape in his professional life makes sense. But Marshall and the screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella never take us there, reducing his struggle to a guy just juggling one too many women and can't understand why. He's never as interesting as the initial press conference makes him out to be.

Then we get to the real heart and soul of the film - the musical numbers. Conceptually a failure from the very beginning, every subsequent number and the way its cross-edited with a talking narrative that continues on getting drowned out has us longing to bound and gag Marshall so the singers and dancers can let loose. All the greater in its frustration is that many of the songs are quite good, bringing to life either the sadness or the full-bodied sexuality of its songsters. Fergie's showstopper, "Be Italian", begins as a black-and-white meeting on a beach only to be transported into color by the man behind the cinematic curtain onto a soundstage that feels more like rehearsal footage that an in-the-moment display of passion. The only times Marshall's Chicago-ized method works are in Cotillard's two numbers which are meant to be about her and only her. Opening them up further would have been gaudy and miscalculated. But Marshall puts Kate Hudson on a catwalk, Judi Dench on a burlesque stage, Cotillard on a stripper stage and even transplants the sand from Fergie's beach to a stage where we're left thinking, "on second thought, let's not be Italian, it is a silly place."

If this is Guido's imagination, how can we look upon him as some glorious filmmaker when his creative vision appears as limited as a Dancing With The Stars routine? Susan Stroman caught hell for her stiff direction in recreating The Producers on film. Whatever lack of creativity she displayed, she was at least being faithful to what made the stage show work. There was a consistency to her approach. Marshall has found a new way to take us out of the moment with the musical numbers. Since the talking bits, aside from the moments with Cruz, are merely flat bridges, we actually look forward to the big choruses. In Chicago there was a logic with characters who wanted to live out their livs on a stage, whether it be for a literal audience, a courtroom metaphor or an all-the-world's-one statement on infamous celebritydom. Nine is supposed to represent the fantastical disconnect between the cinema of its day and Guido's life - and even the one song that is ALL about his movies, one of the two new original songs for the film version ("Cinema Italiano") is done on a fashion runway.

Perhaps Rob Marshall suffers from an unconscionable disconnect from the material. Where one filmmaker could pour his soul into the struggles of a life lived, Marshall is merely seeking the glory of another Oscar run, pushing the necessary buttons as the assembly line keeps chucking and meeting only the necessary quota. Who is Guido and why do we care about his self-perpetuated vices. Written in a limbo that makes him neither a bottom feeder forced into redemption or the kind of cheeky rapscallion that gives us pleasure even when he's leaving pain in his wake, Guido is just too bland and lacking in creativity to make us care about his troubled story. On second thought, maybe this is an autobiography.

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