Theater has long sought strange and unusual sources for its stage adaptations. Nine is one of the more esoteric choices, bringing Italian director Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½ to the boards. Now, the Tony-award winning musical has been adapted to the big screen marking the first time in more than two decades that a motion picture was adapted from the stage after having itself been adapted from the big screen.
Daniel Day-Lewis steps into Marcello Mastroianni’s acclaimed role as a film director unable to resolve his latest idea into a motion picture, finding no inspiration to assist him. As he delves into his memory to find an accurate way to portray himself and his picture, he remembers all the women who have had an influence on his life, hoping it will lead him to a new idea.
Rob Marshall’s version, like the original, is a series of fantasy sequences, each reminding him of those who matter most to him, but whom he can’t seem to relate or express those emotions. And also like 8 ½, you can infer from these sequences, portrayed in the film as musical numbers, that it is these women who have been his inspiration, even though he’s treated each of them poorly and still doesn’t know how to approach them.
Day-Lewis works his traditional acting skills into the part, diving head first into the character but, either because he’s attempting to brood too much, or because the script asks it of him, he just doesn’t seem to be performing at the top of his game.
The same can easily be said for several of the women in the film. Nicole Kidman is acceptable, but hardly memorable, as Guido’s last “muse” Claudia who has managed to become a success in spite of their affair; Sophia Loren walks through the film without much emphasis or importance as Guido’s mother; Penelope Cruz plays his current mistress in a broad, unsympathetic, and unnecessarily loony way while attempting to ratchet up the film’s admittedly limited sexiness; and although Kate Hudson has an extreme amount of fun in the “Cinema Italiano” piece written directly for the film, her non-musical scenes are too brief and too uninteresting.
Escaping almost unscathed is Judi Dench as Guido’s seamstress and confidant Lilli. She doesn’t do anything new or inventive with the role, but is solid enough. And her one sequence of “Folies Bergère” is well designed, but feels a bit hollow at times.
Fergie gets the film’s best dance sequence, “Be Italian”. Her voice is well fitted to the song and the choreography is amazing, but her character Saraghina isn’t as important to Guido’s formative years as she is in the Fellini original, probably because they didn’t want to give her a chance to act, though with what’s around her in the film, it probably wouldn’t have made it much more messy.
The lone acting bright spot in the entire production is Oscar winner Marion Cotillard whose Luisa Contini is intensely sympathetic and emotionally resonant thanks to her performance both during the spoken scenes and her two musical numbers. Her vulnerability is unquestionably real and, were I not to compare her to Anouk Aimée in the original, I’d say it was a career-defining performance. But, much of the credit can probably go to Aimée whose performance in 8 ½ is magical and luminous. She created one hell of a character with Luisa, so it’s no surprise it’s such a well-written and acted role. So, credit further goes to Cotillard for not trampling it and doing it justice.
The production design in the film is gorgeous, though perhaps a bit stage-bound. However, considering the film is a series of memory-driven segments, removed from the realm of reality, it feels appropriate. They do depart greatly from the more realistic ones depicted in 8 ½, but even Fellini’s scenes had a bit of otherworldly quality to them that makes it a bit more believable.
The costumes are tweaked slightly from the period to give it a more vibrant flavor and the cinematography is beautiful, yet approaches Tim Burton levels of excess. Then there’s the music.
The score itself isn’t terribly impressive, though I don’t know that it’s really the filmmaker’s fault. Many of the songs are fairly flat and lifeless, plus having no defined showstopping closing number or a tone-setting opening number make for rather poor bookends. Still, four songs really stand out for me. Two are the emotionally resonant songs performed by Cotillard, “My Husband Makes Movies” and the original-for-the-film “Take It All”. They are listenable, but their power is in how they convey Luisa’s mental turmoil, trying to love the man while simultaneously despising him.
The other two songs to enjoy were exciting performance numbers that aren’t really that important to the film’s plot (though were to the original Fellini). “Be Italian” from the stage musical and “Cinema Italiano” written for the film are well choreographed entertaining segments, but don’t really flow well within the framework of the film.
Marshall’s direction is a bit overzealous in places and undefined in others. Unlike his first big screen musical feature Chicago, he seems to have lost himself in his own little world. And that may be one of the film’s biggest problems. Fellini’s 8 ½ was a representation of his own frustrations and turmoil having directed seven features and a short film prior and looking for an idea for his latest. His vulnerability played a great deal of importance to the success and resonance of the film. Marshall doesn’t really have that kind of problem. Although his Memoirs of a Geisha wasn’t terribly well received by critics, he hasn’t had to face the kind of inner demons his subject has, making it more difficult for him to really live in the role of his main character.
With one success and two intermittently enjoyable, but partly inaccessible films under his belt, Rob Marshall’s career may need some fine-tuning at this point. Before he’s able to match the success of Chicago, he really needs to examine his work and understand why parts of it don’t work. Obviously, he has the technicals down, but he really needs to get in and start understanding the depth of the themes of his productions.
-Wesley Lovell (March 15, 2010)