Saturday, January 2, 2010

Squalor: Nine

Rob Marshall rounds Fellini's 8 1/2 up to Nine with sexy, albeit massively disappointing, results. Here we have a movie based on a Broadway musical based on a non-musical movie about making movies. I can't speak to what the show is like on stage, but I could write volumes about what's being lost in the translation from Fellini to Marshall. As a serious Fellini fan, I can say that this film would have the auteur rolling in his grave. I'd even argue that it doesn't take a Fellini fanatic to observe all that is wrong with Nine. It's pretty damn obvious. With Chicago, Marshall blended the stagy with the cinematic in a way that worked with the atmosphere and subject matter. It was pure Fosse, a film about stage performers without need of too much silver screen razzle dazzle. With Nine, Marshall misses the point entirely. 8 1/2 is a movie about movies. It's a delirious frenzy that beautifully captures the frustration of the creative process. Nine picks up only on the most superficial bits of its source material, the women and muddled relationships. As it attempts to be a musical about movies, it succeeds only in being tremendously (and perhaps ironically) stagy. Marshall attempts to build up his characters and the film as something of a Fellini homage but instead falters and gives American audiences a strange parade of silly, tangentially related song and dance numbers. Only Fergie (as Saraghina) appears at all Fellini-esque. Everything (and everyone) else is less grotesque and absurd than overtly serious about mugging and vamping for the camera. This may be my great love for 8 1/2 talking, but when placed anywhere near the original, Nine feels like nothing more than a very confused Victoria's Secret commercial.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who is otherwise arguably one of the finest actors working in cinema today, steps into a role he just can't quite fill in taking on Guido (now Contini, then Anselmi, changed for some inexplicable reason). Guido, as originated by Marcello Mastroianni oozed an effortlessly slick charm. Even as he doubted and faltered, he retained his cool and what's more, you believed him. Day-Lewis, sadly, can't quite match Mastroianni, but he does seem painfully aware of the absurdity of what's happening around him. It's enough to keep him afloat even as his British accent seems to seep through the Italian act and you cringe as he proves not to be such a hot singer...

That's a different subject entirely, however, and we'll get to the film's shortcomings as an actual musical in a minute. Right now, let's focus on Guido. Marshall's version of Guido is not so much Fellini's superman alter ego as a wink wink nudge nudge mix up of Fellini traits. Yes, womanizing, yes, vague screenplays, yes, yes a whole lot of references take place, oh, ha ha, isn't it delightful, aren't we clever? Maybe so, but the result is that none of it feels like an actual Fellini film. Guido becomes a hollow shell, a caricature of the tormented man living in a magical, musical fantasy world filled with ladies in lingerie writhing on a soundstage.
The ladies have their moments, but just as with the original, each actress is barely present. When they're in the scenes, they're never developed into actual characters. This isn't so much a fault of Marshall's as an actual adherence to the original content. Yet, where Fellini's ladies were designed to fade in and out of focus in the dizzying decadence of Guido's world, Marshall can't seem to grasp what the originals were standing in for. Instead, what he gives us are too many major stars without enough screen time. When they're there, they consume all, when they're gone you feel their absence not as the characters they embody, but the stars they actually are. If you're expecting a Nicole Kidman Moulin Rouge! style showstopper, you won't find it here. Kidman is a ghost of a character, the absent muse with a few minutes of screen time that I feared would veer towards a La Dolce Vita reenactment I absolutely did not want to see happen. Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz have the largest supporting roles, Cotillard working well as a fill in for Anouk Aimee and Cruz appropriately garish as Guido's mistress Carla. Each woman is dealt approximately one musical number. Cotillard has two, but trust me, one is entirely forgettable. In fact, almost all of the songs in Nine are lamentable. The two standouts, "Be Italian" and "Cinema Italiano" are performed with style and verve by Fergie and Kate Hudson, respectively, and well...frankly, though they may be a bit catchy, even those aren't standout examples of songwriting.
All the 8 1/2 comparisons aside, it's the music that really killed this film for me. It's weak. Really weak. Frequently actually nonsensical and embarassing in its lyrical construction. On stage, it probably worked, you can get away with that sort of thing live. On film, however, there's little to distract you from listening and shaking your head as you try to figure out why each song's chorus seems to be entirely made up of the repetition of the same words over and over and over again. Every song babbles on about "Guido", there are literally whole verses made up of women breathlessly repeating "Contini Contini Contini". Judi Dench's only number is a pointless and flat non sequitor about how wonderful the Folies Bergeres were. "Be Italian" occurs at a moment that has very little to do with any sort of Italian nationalism. "Cinema Italiano" (which you can listen to in the montage trailer below) while flashy, is basically a very generalized gushing on Fellini's actual style. Sure, I can agree with the song's sentiments; Kate Hudson go-go dances her way through explaining the basics of the aesthetic appeal of Fellini's works. I too love the black & white, the play of light, the neo-realism, the skinny little ties and the cinema Italiano, but good lord, why are we singing about it and harping on all the style-centric and inane bits of Fellini's work yelling "Guido Guido Guido Guido"? Instead, wouldn't it have made more sense to simply film Nine in the style of Fellini? To show us something akin to actual Italian neo-realism circa 1960? I think so. As much as I love La Dolce Vita (and by god it's a lot), I don't think I've ever had the urge to dance around crooning "Federico Federico Federico". I'm not naming names, but it just felt like the lyricists were having their own issues with inspiration. To add insult to injury, as if the musical numbers didn't make much sense on their own, Marshall cross cuts them into the action of the film in an attempt to force an edgy, music video energy that never quite matches up. Instead, Nine becomes jumbled, and even when it's entertaining, it can't quite seem to escape itself. (In case you were wondering, there's almost no trace of the Nino Rota score, either. I know, right? What a waste...)
Nine is caged by its affiliation with 8 1/2. In reality, a Fellini musical seems perfectly plausible. His films are frequently stocked with burlesque and three ring circus influence. In someone else's hands, Nine could have conquered and re-imagined the source material. Rob Marshall, however, perhaps because he admires Fellini, perhaps not, seems to attempt to adhere so rigidly to silly plot points that he dilutes the chaos into a concrete story and filters the artistic function of the film into something without the soul (however cold the original was) and most certainly with half the smarts. As a diversion, it's not the worst of its kind, it's a kaleidoscopic affair that keeps itself moving enough to prevent any serious slippage into the truly unforgivable. I think it means well, too. It just...doesn't work as any sort of adaptation. Watch it if you must (and you will), but if you want to do yourself a favor, just watch 8 1/2 instead.

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