You'll wonder why they bothered.
Daniel Day Lewis is Guido Contini, a maestro of the cinema Italiano (this is the 1960s, when Italy had quite a few of them). But he’s blocked. It’s ten days before the start of shooting on his new production (“Italia”), and everyone is raring to go – but there’s no script. Barely even a germ.
After bluffing his way through a press conference, Guido runs off to a seaside spa town, calls his wife (Marion Cotillard) then thinks better of it and summons his mistress (Penelope Cruz) instead. Soon the production team has joined them, but while auditions continue, Guido’s still stuck…
If you have seen 8 1/2, then you will recognise that Nine is a quasi-remake. It’s a bizarre choice, given that this is such a personal movie, a film that was precisely about Fellini?s sense of having reached a creative impasse after the glories of La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita.
In his eight and one half film (eight features and a short), for the first time, Fellini didn’t make a movie about “society”, he made the film about himself: his dreams and fantasies, the women in his life (eight of them, including Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee, and Barbara Steele), and his struggle to reconcile Catholicism with the new freedoms of the twentieth century. His Guido wasn’t particularly likeable, but at least we could see he had some kind of genius.
Ironically, there have already been two Americanisations of this landmark autobiographical movie. Woody Allen made it into Stardust Memories, and Bob Fosse came up with All That Jazz. In both cases the filmmakers applied Fellini?s lessons to their own lives – Allen made a painfully self-effacing running gag about how everyone likes his alter ego’s “early, funny films”, for example, a joke that is recycled here. Fosse?s film, even more so, feels every bit as honest as 8 1/2 was to the maestro.
That’s not the case here. Nine – scripted by the late Anthony Minghella and Michael (The Player) Tolkin – is based on a Broadway production of an Italian musical. It’s no longer personal, though perhaps if Minghella had directed he might have made it so. Instead we’re stuck with Rob Marshall (Chicago), a journeyman director not fit to lick Bob Fosse?s feet, let alone Fellini?s.
Nine adds nothing to the 1963 film – just phony accents, bad songs, blah colour, and second hand razzamatazz. It’s not just less personal, it’s a lot less funny, less sexy, less scandalous, and even less stylish. And I say this as someone who finds 8 1/2 quite dated, far from Fellini?s best.
On a positive note, Marshall – or his producer, Harvey Weinstein – has gathered an impressive roster of stars. I’m not convinced that Daniel Day Lewis is playing to his strengths here, his singing voice is less than stellar, but at least it has novelty value and I enjoyed watching him skulk and mooch around Rome in elegantly tailored sixties suits.
Each of the women gets a song or a song and a half. Inexplicably, Marshall has chosen to stage almost all of them on the same theatrical sound stage as if he’d rather be on Broadway. With the exceptions of Dame Judi Dench, as the maestro’s tart wardrobe mistress, and a scary looking Sophia Loren as Guido’s mama, each lolls around in a corset and suspenders, or at the very least in a variety of low cut evening gowns (Nicole Kidman as Guido’s muse) though this becomes tedious much sooner than you might think.
Vocally, Fergie steals the show – but it’s no more than a cameo really. Only Marion Cotillard (excellent) and Penelope Cruz are given time and consideration to suggest a character, but even then they’re defined by their devotion to Guido.
It says something that the brief snippets of rehearsal footage that sneak into the end credits provide our first glimpses of these women relaxed and smiling and relaxed… Nine might have had a point if it asked how these modern, self-possessed, independent women relate to Fellini?s egocentric fantasia. Instead it’s just a kitsch American gloss on an art-house classic.