Film Review: Nine

On July 27, I had the opportunity to see a preview screening of the film Nine. I was paranoid about posting anything because it is a Weinstein production and they are very controlling over the material they release. It was quite clear they wanted to keep the screenings that night very quiet because they opted out of a Manhattan screening and instead went to a big mall in NJ to hand out fliers.

For those who have known me for a while, it's clear I have no problem spoiling any production connected to TV if I have the opportunity. I never reveal major plot details, though the creative process, from writing to casting to filming strategies, is always interesting to me.

Regarding Nine, I'm returning to the original metaphor I used to describe the film even if the person I offered this material to, in a different form, didn't like it.

Imagine, if you will, a marathon race. The runners are all ready to go at the starting line. The gun goes off and everyone pushes past the gate. One runner in particular decides to dart ahead and take the early lead. This runner is strong and fast, and even though you know there's no way the runner can keep up this pace, the sure ease with which the runner approaches the race makes you believe in for a small period of time in that runner's ability to exceed all expectations and win the marathon.

This enthusiastic but ultimately misguided runner is the film Nine. The first forty minutes of the film are stunning. It felt like I was watching Rob Marshall's masterpiece. He repeats the performance of the mind within a plot situation device from Chicago, though it's not as easy to recognize at first. A brooding Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis, who very well may win his third Best Actor Oscar if this film takes off like I suspect it will) sits in a darkened film studio, surrounded by colossal remains of a partially constructed facade of famous Italian architecture. The room is silent. He lights a cigarette with a look of utter frustration. The show is about to begin. The lights rise as beautiful women begin to descend from every entrance in the studio, including all of the important women of his past, present, and future: his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard, the only woman to receive two songs in the film; she has enough screentime to arguable be lead and is certainly strong enough to be campaigned that way); his mistress, Carla Albanese (Penelope Cruz, who steals every single moment she has on screen and dominates the first half of the film enough to also arguably bump up to lead); his costume mistress, Lillian La Fleur (Judi Dench, who is the only guaranteed nomination for the film; she pops up throughout with a good one liner, has the first great flashy song in the film, and shines as a supporting player without stealing attention from DDL); Momma (Sophia Loren, who sadly is just not in the film that much); a prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie, who...yeah, is it a bad sign when you're barely shown at all during your solo song in a big budget musical? because you only get close ups of her playing with sand and acting like a slut, not singing or dancing); his muse, Claudia Nardi (Nicole Kidman, who barely has more screentime than Loren); and a reporter, Stephanie Necrophorus (Kate Hudson, who is the second most likely to be nominated in Supporting Actress for virtue of hitting a home run on the best and flashiest of the new songs for the film in visually the most memorable sequence of the film; she also does great in her other small scenes and holds her own against DDL). This is the only source of joy Guido has: his deepest memories of the women he loved as friends, as mothers, as mentors, as inspiration, and as lovers.

The film embraces the dark brooding narrative of Nine for the first third of the film. You get to see Guido falling apart in every single scene. You see him revert to a childlike state whenever he has contact with one of the major women in his life, only to crash as soon as his moment of fantasy or brief encounter in reality leaves. Just when the film begins to approach how Guido cannot possibly achieve or maintain any lasting happiness with the way he chose to live his life and interact with women, the film hits the wall. Moments that should play out like a sucker punch become predictable, sanitized plot points in a much gentler musical than Nine should be.

The biggest disappointment is the ending, which slaps on such a needless sheen of optimism on the proceedings that you'll be waiting for Tinkerbell to fly over the castle while a bunch of animated characters appear out of nowhere for a closing credits dance sequence.

Do not get me wrong. I have a feeling that people who are unfamiliar with the stage musical Nine or its inspiration, the film 8 1/2, will not know they are missing anything. What Rob Marshall accomplishes with this declawed adaptation is just as innovative for the development of movie musicals as Once's convention manipulation to justify two strangers consistently singing to each other without realizing their songs reveal their deepest secrets. The transitions from reality to the song sequences are seamless. You absolutely connect to Guido's mental state because of Marshall's work here. The costumes, sets, lighting, editing, and performances (sans Fergie) are beautiful. Marshall makes Fergie's song work around her performance, for example, by filling the screen with interchangeable ensemble members, all whores, filmed in wide dramatic shots of a synchronized dance of seduction and pure sexuality.

So if the film Nine is running in a marathon, and it hits the wall 1/3 of the way through, it still manages to finish in a respectable place. There are so many risks taken with the editing and direction it will take my fellow musical purists to realize something is off, but even they won't leave truly disappointed. For a Hollywood musical, I don't think it could have gone any darker and had a chance at success. It's just those moments of darkness are so beautifully done, I long for the film that wasn't even given a chance to be made.