Magazine article The New Yorker

Free and Uneasy

Magazine article The New Yorker

Free and Uneasy

Article excerpt

The beginning of "Nine" feels like an end. The first words we hear are "You kill your film," uttered at a press conference by an Italian movie director named Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis). We then find him at the Cinecitta film studios, in Rome, on an echoing soundstage, which starts to fill, as if by magic, with all the women he has known, adored, and worked with. They range from his mother (Sophia Loren) to his tigerish mistress (Penelope Cruz), his main muse (Nicole Kidman), and his long-suffering wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard). Also present are his costume designer and confidante (Judi Dench), a reporter from American Vogue (Kate Hudson), and, from the shifting sands of his childhood, a witchy hooker by the name of Saraghina (Fergie). Together they weave around Guido, chanting "La-la-la," like a chorus without a song sheet.

You wonder where the lyrics went, but, as the rest of "Nine" makes clear, you're not missing much. Rob Marshall's film is based on the stage production of the same name, and I can't say that I am racked with regret at having skipped it. There are big numbers aplenty--all the actresses get one apiece, apart from Cotillard, who gets two--and most of them are belted out with growls and gusto (Fergie being the belter-in-chief), but I woke up the next morning, as I did after Marshall's previous choice of musical, "Chicago," without a single tune or phrase still tolling in my head. "My husband spins fantasies, he lives them, then gives them to you," Luisa sings, and her words might as well be spoken. You long for the ghost of Lorenz Hart to be unleashed on the whole affair, with a hard blue pencil and a head full of rhymes.

To be fair, the theatrical project was a challenge in the first place, having taken its cue from "8 1/2 ," Fellini's masterpiece of 1963. This means that "Nine" is a film of a musical of a film--which was itself the film of a life, if you happen to believe that Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) was the harassed alter ego of Fellini himself. The story was that there was no story; Guido could not get his latest film started, or even written, and that remains the case in "Nine." One is forced to ask: who wants to make, or watch, a major Hollywood musical about mental block? "Singin' in the Rain" was also about obstacles in moviemaking, but it found irrepressible joy in seeing them surmounted; each song pushed events along, whereas the songs in "Nine" merely hold them up. A woman is introduced, the action is paused, and she gives us the melodious lowdown on her circumstances. Cruz, for instance, begins with the purring line "Who's not wearing any clothes? I'm not," though she is in fact wearing about an acre of lingerie, and sliding down a long pink slope: a lubricious tribute to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," although Cruz is hellbent on highlighting her rear, whereas Marilyn Monroe was too busy stuffing her tongue in her cheek.

The wisest figure by far is Judi Dench, and it's a pity that she is saddled with the most pointless song--a riff on the Folies-Bergere. Wrong country, surely, but then the movie's grip on Italy feels tenuous at best. There are luscious locations, and everyone will covet Guido's lithe little Alfa Romeo in powder blue, but there is no getting around the ungainly fact that here is a bunch of non-Italian performers speaking like-a theess. (The script is by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, whose 1999 film, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," about foreigners dying to be sucked into Italy's warmth, and only half succeeding, was a far more honest approach to cultural fusion. Just think what Minghella might have wrought at the helm of "Nine.") Apart from the odd pronto and bene, the ban on Italian is absolute, without one subtitle. Could this be because the filmmakers are scared that "Nine" will be mistaken for an art-house picture? If so, their fear is well grounded, because "8 1/2 " remains the most gorgeous item of festive modernism, with its portrait of the artist ensnared by the goddesses of memory and desire. …

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