This familiarity with narrative and action compression found in the music video format infects not only the audience but also directors, many of whom are crossing over from the video world, as well as those more firmly rooted in film and even the stage.
The projects themselves reflect this hyper-realized cross-pollination. Academy Award-winning director Rob Marshall (Chicago) presents his version of Nine, the Tony Award-winning adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2 about a film director suffering from an artistic block stemming from the multiple and conflicting female muses in his life.
Marshall’s director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) certainly has his share of problems, ranging from his suffering wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), a former actress who must sit by idly and watch her husband audition his new conquests in the same fashion that he lured her, to the ravishing Carla (Penelope Cruz), Guido’s mistress eager to take on a more prominent and public role in his life. There’s also Claudia (Nicole Kidman), Guido’s onscreen leading lady; Lilli (Judi Dench), his long-time costumer designer; Saraghina (Fergie, as in Stacy Ferguson), the prostitute who initiated the younger Guido (Guiseppe Spitaleri) into the ways of love; a fashion magazine writer (Kate Hudson) on the make; and even his deceased mother (Sophia Loren).
Among the multiple levels of viewing taking place in the proceedings, for Guido and Marshall, is how to frame or “stage” the musical elements, and it’s here that Marshall makes the most wise and assured choices.
All of the musical numbers unfold on the soundstage for Guido’s unwritten next project. The set and the crew seem to be following an “if we build it, it will come” approach, which perfectly synchs with the notion that Guido’s mind is little more than a blank soundstage.
As strong and obvious a choice as this is for Marshall, he unfortunately continues to succumb to the influences of the cut-and-paste aesthetic of music videos. While the occasional voice is able to maintain a through-line — like Cotillard’s Luisa, who gets two musical showcases fitting her central role in Guido’s life both on and off screen, and Cruz, who burns through all the excesses — Nine’s show tunes are wannabe VH1 Countdown hits, all style and flash rendered with a sure hand, offering little to truly deepen the emotional arc of individual characters or the story as a whole.
Most frustrating of all is how Guido gets lost in the shuffle during these muse interludes. This is supposed to be his story, his struggle to punch through a creative and personal wall. And with a performer like Day-Lewis, we expect the feral magnetic intensity of Bill the Butcher or Daniel Plainview.
Guido broods and shuffles about through press conferences and various hotel rooms and corridors, but it seems as if the golden glow surrounding him is further in his past. He is older and quite possibly more out of touch with the times than he’s supposed to be. It’s not just his female muses that confound him but also his memories of the films that earned him his reputation.
In the end, Guido must return to the basics, remove all the clutter and kinetic energy pinballing around him, in order to see his way back to storytelling. The same lesson could serve Marshall as well.
If Marshall is going to continue making movie musicals, he should stop trying to make them fit into our helter-skelter sensibilities. Slow things down instead and let the grace of the performers and the unbroken flow of the songs and the accompanying dances reveal these musical lifelines. Grade: B
Opens Dec. 25. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.