|Directing is easy. Yes, no, yes, no.|
The lyrics in the first song seem to set up the rules for the movie. Maestro Contini is a director going through one hell of a mid-life crisis. He is making a movie, but has no script - a sort of poignant nod to his life having no direction. Much like the movie he's in has no direction. Guido, our anti-hero, wants to be "everywhere at once, though that's a contradiction in terms". Nine suffers the same fate: it's too many places at once, never stopping to focus on the good ideas it hints at along the way. Another indication of the film comes from a small exchange of dialog between the director and his costume designer. She tells him "directing is easy, maestro. 'Yes, no, yes, no'". Apparently, she nailed Rob Marshall's intent when direction this misguided take on the Broadway musical. Apathetic.
I mention the Broadway musical for obvious reasons. Nine premiered in 1982, and was revived again in 2004, with the director played by the late and amazing Raul Julia and then by Antonio Banderas, respectively. What you might not know is that the musical is based off of the phenomenal Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, back in 1963, at which time Nine takes place. You don't have to see Fellini's film to understand the musical, but it wouldn't hurt. The musical isn't very strong, especially when compared to the film that inspired it. But, it's not entirely unwatchable. There are moments, like there are in most generally disappointing things. A couple of good songs here and there, and some entertaining characters. It's just unfortunate that on stage, and on screen, those don't make an interesting show. The film can't ever find its footing, mostly because it can't ever stand still.
At base, the story behind Nine is simple - Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is going through a tough time. He's realizing that his playboy lifestyle is driving him into the ground and affecting his work. He's trying to make another great movie, but he can't write. In a sort of sordid sexual Christmas Carol experience, he's visited by the ghosts of girlfriends' past, and more important women in his life. One can assume that's because his life is almost solely about women. There's Luisa (Marion Cotillard) his wife, Carla (Penelope Cruz) his mistress, Claudia (Nicole Kidman) his leading lady, Lilli (Judi Dench) his costume designer, Saraghina (Fergie) a local prostitute, his mama (Sophia Loren), and Stephanie (Kate Hudson) a fashion reporter. The film follows him in and out of these relationships as they develop in the past and collide in the present. Boiled down a little more simply, the film concerns guilt. Not just guilt for living a life of lies, but guilt with himself for not being able to even do that correctly. He's too full of himself to allow room for anyone else.
Rob Marshall brings the exact same flash he brought to his adaptation of Chicago. But, where Chicago succeeded is exactly where Nine fails. There's a sound psychological approach to Chicago, placing the film almost entirely inside Roxie's head. Nine takes place inside Guido's head, but... it's such a vacant space, everything in there just rambles. One of the many problems of Nine is that we can't get behind our main character even enough to feel sorry for him. Movies that present themselves the way this one does don't get a pass for being a character piece, especially when there isn't a fully fleshed character in the entire production. The closest we get to a well rounded person is Luisa, but Marshall's direction and production choices make her completely inconsistent and unreliable. The inclusion of the song "Take It All" turns her into a cruel woman, rather than the loving but scorned wife she was supposed to be. But, to be fair, Marion Cotillard is good enough to make it sound reasonable.
And even in a cast with Daniel Day-Lewis, Cotillard herself, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, et al., the best performance is about five minutes long and from a traditionally non-actor. Fergie. Penelope Cruz got the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but it's Fergie who deserved the credit. Her Saraghina - on paper - is a flat woman. There's nothing to her except that she gives a group of little boys, including a young Guido, a bit of a peep show for a small handful of coins. Her number "Be Italian" is the crux of the film. She's instructing him on how to love, both physically and emotionally. The way Fergie performs it, in a uniquely spiritual and haunting way, suggests that Guido never got her point. Rob Marshall didn't get the point, either.
1960's Italian cinema is some of the finest around, as even 8 1/2 itself proves. And for a film that's about a director making a movie in the 60's in Rome... there isn't a single shade of Italian influence or even respect for Fellini's masterpiece in the proceedings. What's worse is that there's an original song that completely undermines the very idea of that, almost as if Marshall knew what he was doing by ignoring the influence of 60's Italian film. Kate Hudson's only number (may we thank God) is a digitally filmed cacophonous mess called Cinema Italiano. What that tells me is this - they know about Italian cinema, at least enough to comment on neo-realism, and they are making a commentary about digital filmmaking and the "death" of that era. Well, considering the entire film feels like cellophane and glass cleaner, we have to assume that Nine is part of that problem, not the solution.
We remember musicals because of the songs, almost always. Sure, we'll remember visuals from this film - Guido walking along the edge of the couch singing to himself, and Carla playing with ropes during "A Call to the Vatican", and we'll remember Fergie playing in sand during "Be Italian" (maybe because that's the only number in the film that stands out). Nine doesn't have that many songs that can be remembered, or hummed walking down the street, or even that we can reference without trying too hard. One of the many fall backs of a film that could have been great. But, that's mostly the show's fault. Not just Rob Marshall's or the late Anthony Minghella's. Truthfully, there are scores of people we can blame - Daniel Day-Lewis' first bad performance in years, complete with an awful Italian accent, we can blame Minghella's screenplay, and we can blame the tech crew for not getting the feel of the period right and subjecting the film to Yesterday Syndrome. But, mostly, I blame Rob Marshall.
There's a small bit of deconstructionist theory toward the end. The women in Guido's life show up on set to help Guido film his next movie, like they're cast members. So, it apparently turns out that we're living a stage musical inside of Guido's head even though he's working on a film. We're subjected to numbers filmed obviously on sets and stages and sound stages alike, and we're seeing all the women sit together and laugh. Like co-workers. And this is then furthered by the "rehearsal" footage in the credits. It takes us out of the film before the film is even over. To be fair, though, it's not like I could ever get into the film to begin with.
A note - Sophia Loren is the most Italian thing this film has going for it. And trust me - the film never lets you forget it.