Loosely based on a 1982 Broadway show itself loosely based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 81⁄2, the Weinstein Company’s Oscar flagship Nine represents Indiewood’s ultimate appropriation of the European art cinema it deposed. With a cast and crew conjured up almost entirely from the Weinstein Brothers’ Rolodex, the picture seems like an attempt to engulf and devour an entire tradition of European auteur filmmaking and reprocess it into individually wrapped slices of indie cheese.
Directed by Rob Marshall (the Weinsteins’ Chicago), written by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), starring Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), Penélope Cruz (Waking Up in Reno), Nicole Kidman (Cold Mountain), Judi Dench (Iris), Kate Hudson (About Adam), Sophia Loren (Prêt-à-Porter), and a couple of performers seemingly new to the Weinstein family (Marion Cotillard and the rock singer Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas), Nine feels as eerily hermetic as any studio film of the classical era, its cast drawn from the roster of available contract players, regardless of the individual actor’s suitability for the role.
For example, we get the flinty, combustible Kidman as the warm, voluptuous Claudia, a character who seems to be an awkward composite of the virginal muse figure played by Claudia Cardinale in 81⁄2 and the overflowing, fountain-wading starlet played by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. More ruinously, we get the ascetic, cerebral Day-Lewis as Guido Contini, the revamped version of the creatively exhausted filmmaker Guido Anselmi—the character played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s film, drawing on his vast reserves of effortless charisma.
Nine was probably doomed from the moment Day-Lewis—a brilliant performer when the cards are in his favor, as in There Will Be Blood—was cast in a role for which he has no visible affinity, apart from the two Oscars he brings to the table. Where Mastroianni was wide-eyed and cherubic, Day-Lewis looks cadaverous, like a late-period John Carradine. He brings his patented brooding intensity to the part, as well as a technically perfect Italian accent, but brooding intensity may not be a virtue in a story about a charming womanizer who has seven females to keep happy. This Guido becomes a sweaty, chain-smoking compulsive, who, strangely enough, occasionally breaks into song and dance.
In Marshall’s hands, the production numbers seem to leap out of nowhere, without the benefit of the welling-up of emotion that traditionally serves as a bridge between dialogue and song in a musical. And largely, the numbers just sit on top of the dramatic action, adding little to our understanding of the characters and seldom contributing to the advancement of the story.
Where Fellini’s gargantuan prostitute, La Saraghina (played by the imported American actress Eddra Gale—was no one large enough available in Italy?), initiates young Guido and his friends into the dark mysteries of sexuality, Marshall’s benign, domesticated version (performed by Fergie) merely dispenses the bumper-sticker advice to “Be Italian!” (i.e., full of life and lust, like those people in Moonstruck).
Even more excruciating is Kate Hudson’s turn as a Vogue journalist who, when she’s not offering to sleep with the subject of her story, rips off a runway number called “Cinema Italiano,” in which the entire history of Italian film is reduced to gyrating chorus boys wearing black suits, skinny ties, and sunglasses.
As he did in Chicago, Marshall continues to stage his dance numbers with an unshakable Broadway frontality (Guido may be a filmmaker, but he has the erotic daydreams of a theater director). The numbers, often wildly overproduced, are intended to be show-stoppers, but so are the dramatic monologues that have been carefully rationed out among the principal actors. In both cases, we’re meant to stand back in awe as the performers strut their stuff. Cotillard, as Guido’s neglected wife, models her performance on Giulietta Masina’s big-eyed waif in Nights of Cabiria (the first Fellini film to be musicalized by Broadway, as Sweet Charity), while Cruz is costumed, in a more wayward reference, to look like Sophia Loren in one of her De Sica sex comedies; both get to blubber without restraint. As the mascara starts to run, you’ll want to as well.