December 8, 2009 / 3:07 AM / 9 years ago

"Nine" makes awkward transition to screen

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Any number of movies have served as the basis for stage musicals — even “Gone With the Wind” was bravely attempted, though with predictable results.

(L-R) Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, director Rob Marshall, Penelope Cruz and Kate Hudson arrive for the world premiere of "Nine" at Leicester Square in London December 3, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

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. The Weinstein Co. and a host of producers thought lightning might strike twice with Fellini’s “8 1/2,” which inspired the Tony Award-winning 1982 musical “Nine.” Lightning does not strike the same place twice.

The disappointments are many here, 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,” which opens December 18, is not going to revive the slumbering musical film genre. Box office looks problematic too, but moviegoers are going to be enticed by that cast, and the Weinstein brothers certainly know how to promote a movie. Modest returns are the most optimistic possibility.

Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece takes you inside a man’s head. Since he happens to be a movie director, those 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 and, to his credit, it’s not Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido but a new character, more burned-out than blocked and increasingly sickened by his womanizing.

The English-language film insists it’s still 1965 Rome, where black-and-white, Cinecitta Studios, Vespas, Ray-Bans and all things Italian reign. 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 on the beach from his childhood (Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas), 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 previous film musical, “Chicago,” won the Oscar for best film, but it’s not clear why, given that the musical numbers were all pieced together in such tiny cuts you rarely caught anybody singing or dancing for more than a moment. Marshall is up to his old tricks here: 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 and his many women are experiencing. Marshall, who choreographs with John DeLuca, uses the songs to slam down high-concept, intricately staged Broadway numbers that interrupt action in this Italian seaside town. There’s a staginess and a busy-ness to these numbers, but it never seems to have anything to do with Guido or his psychological problems.

Nicole Kidman as Guido’s “muse” and Kate Hudson as an on-the-make American journalist get to do very little. Judi Dench is wonderful and wise as Guido’s costume designer-cum-therapist and, fortunately, is asked to do little in terms of singing and dancing.

Fergie is kinda 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 Daniel Day-Lewis. He is an incredibly sexy man and performs all the right moves. The problem is he keeps doing those moves over and over so you experience 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” you never get inside the protagonist’s head. You just can’t decide whether his problem is too many women or too many musical numbers breaking out for no reason.

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