If there's a single sin to zero in on while watching "Nine," it has to be the way it makes Federico Fellini feel absolutely insufferable. The Broadway musical "Nine," a shadow of the 1963 Fellini film "8 1/2," makes its cinematic debut after nearly 30 years of wowing audiences with its lurid behaviors and zesty Italian style. While I've never had the pleasure of attending the stage show, I've suffered through its filmic incarnation, which douses everything plausibly irresistible about the original material (and "8 1/2") with a sickly goo of glum behavior and dodgy characterizations, scored to a jukebox of graceless songs. A boldly chic celebration of sultry 1960s Italy and its lush cinematic persuasions this film is most certainly not, no matter how many hindquarters are thrust into the air, skinny ties are tied, or cigarettes smoked.
A beloved film director with a reputation for masterful cinema and flagrant womanizing, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is trapped in hell, unable to dream up a screenplay for his latest opus. With sets built, costumes prepared, and a leading lady (Nicole Kidman) signed on, Guido freaks, holing up in a hotel while painful images of his life flash before his eyes. Pinning his problems to the women of his universe, Guido confronts his devilish behavior, facing a future without his wife (Marion Cotillard). With only his trusted costume designer (Judi Dench) to confide in, Guido is torn by guilt and a crippling creative block, desperate to come to peace with his callous ways.
With "Chicago," director Rob Marshall enjoyed a robust setting of pure Americana, boosted by a healthy, full-throated serving of memorable tunes to bat around, reimagining a classic musical for the screen. "Nine" isn't as kind or as fortunate. Pushing a wheelbarrow of dramatic inconsequence up a steep hill, Marshall is facing an impossible task. Not only is "Nine" a ventriloquist dummy version of "8 1/2," but it suffers from a debilitating case of the blahs. No, scratch that. It's downright viral with tedium.
It's tricky to lunge after the original 1982 work from Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, since time has spoken clearly here -- audiences around the world have sparked to the material in a sizable fashion; however, the screen version of "Nine" doesn't capture that same theatrical reverberation of immorality and regret, miniaturizing Guido's journey from self-loathing to acceptance, removing all the necessary steps of confession. Played with traditional forehead-rubbing commitment from Day-Lewis, Guido is nevertheless a complete enigma from start to finish. Marshall has the director a fidgety, sexually forward man, dressed impeccably and sucking down smokes as if he's being timed. There are serious mommy issues and marital insecurities at play in his mind, rotting away inside him as he's faced with a creative block unlike anything he's encountered before. All this is established minutes into the film, soon abandoned to put on a fashion show.
All "Nine" offers is the surface, the cool exterior of Fellini's Italy, at war with whatever emotional content Marshall is barely paying attention to. The superficiality of the film doesn't read brazenly intentional, otherwise Day-Lewis wouldn't be shaking like a leaf at the thought of his marriage crumbling, or begging for his deceased mother's (Sophia Loren) attention; these are fragments of Guido executed boldly through an impeccable production effort, but dissolve the within minutes. "Nine" never gives the viewer Guido as a man of decision and realization, only a greasy, impeccably tailored figure of melodrama; he's the Elmer's Glue situated to collect all the particles of femininity blowing his way.
The all-star cast is impressive, and serves an obvious function to blind the audience with some marquee sparkle before anyone has a chance to inspect the vapid collection of tragedies assembled here. Having Kate Hudson (as a Vogue reporter), Penelope Cruz (Guido's number one mistress), Kidman, Cotillard, Loren, and Dench stomping around singing and dancing doesn't exactly inspire Marshall, who drenches the musical numbers in excessive ornamentation to lend each pit-stop a visual identity. Don't get me wrong, the vocals are satisfactory (even Day-Lewis hits basic notes), but the songs are DOA, needing some sort of cinematic hyperactivity or eyeglass-fogging sexuality (Ms. Cruz, you are a gift from heaven) to come alive.
The only number that clicks is "Be Italian," performed by Fergie, who portrays a beach whore Guido once paid to dance for him and his buddies (I'm sure there's maternal subtext in there somewhere). Fergie's bazooka vocals are an ideal fit for the song, along with her ease with hurricane choreography, here nicely blasted with sand to fiddle with Guido's rolling subconscious. Additionally, "Be Italian" is the only tune to feature any sort of hook and explosive chorus, making it instantly recognizable and fleetingly energizing.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) surveys a great amount of filmmaking textures, processing the fantasy of Guido's mind with the harsh reality of his emotional breakdown. The big problem here is shadow detail, with doesn't offer the tight, crisp response one might expect from a BD that spends so much time in the dark. Costume designs are flattened and evening sequences are inky, detracting from the sensual mood. With the lights on, the presentation improves greatly, showing off tremendous detail with these classic faces, along with period details that drip with color and overall widescreen Italian style. When focused, the visual experience is impressive and vibrant. When clotted, screen information is hard to read.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix contains moments of true brassy magic, take the lead of the musical numbers to provide a wonderful Broadway push. The songs sound glorious, sparking through the mix with alarming electricity, pushing through with their dramatic gunfire, while staying within a boundary that doesn't require constant volume dial attention. Dialogue is a little more subdued, but always within comprehension, despite a United Nations of accents and attitudes. Scoring is lush and warm, buttressing the dramatics well, and while the low-end doesn't jump to attention, the buoyancy of the track more than makes up for any lack of rumble. Directional activity is also well taken care of, creating a useful circular listening experience.
English and English SDH subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca is technical without making matters too dry and tedious. Talk of the original musical and Marshall's theatrical influences provide needed reference, while the pair digs into psychological framework, exploring motivations in tremendous detail. The best nuggets come from talk of the production, which employed massive soundstages and iconic actors to bring the material to life. Marshall remains composed, but there's fatigue to his recollections, befitting a nearly three-year effort to bring "Nine" to the screen.
"The Incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis" (5:12) points a spotlight on the world-class actor, with cast and crew gushing about his gifts and general artistic temperament on the set. Day-Lewis also provides his thoughts, which help flesh out his acting process.
"The Women of 'Nine'" (10:47) highlights the efforts of the lovely ladies, who discuss their screen interaction, backstage friendship, and individual expressions of drama. It's reverential piece, but there are a few glimpses of the actresses in rehearsal, which is always entertaining to watch.
"Director Rob Marshall" (6:27) pages through the director's musical credentials to better understand his work on "Nine." Interviews make the man sound like the second coming of Orson Welles, but the praise feels natural, especially coming from the happy cast.
"Behind the Look of 'Nine'" (8:21) focuses on the technical challenges of the film, with the crew submitting a Herculean effort to bring flavorful images to life. Lighting, camera, costume, set design...it's all just massive and overwhelming, and the featurette explores the frantic atmosphere of scale and last minute change that followed the production to the end.
"The Dancers of 'Nine'" (4:39) takes the viewer into the audition process, where hundreds of dancers hoofed it up to be a part of the film. It's a harsh process. Lots of fascinating BTS footage here.
"The Choreography of 'Be Italian'" (4:16) hits the beach, or least a sand-covered soundstage, to bring the film's centerpiece to life. Fergie's here to discuss the number, coming off wonderfully eager to do the song and the sensual moves justice. Again, just watching the dancers work through the number without all the bluster is incredible.
"Making of Cinema Italiano" (2:53) visits briefly with Kate Hudson, who walks through the process of recording the tune and performing the bizarre dance number.
"Sophia Loren Remembers Cinecitta Studios" (12:52) makes up the heart of the supplementary experience, asking the screen legend to recall her performance history and work in Rome, with special attention to her years inside the famous film studio. Loren seems overwhelmed with memories, but what she shares will be of great value to any fan of classic film.
"Screen Actors Guild Q&A" (43:14) is a conversation with Day-Lewis, Kidman, Hudson, Dench, Cruz, and Cotillard, moderated by the man of a thousand frivolous movie quotes, Pete Hammond. The actors are in fine spirit and the background information is a marginal step above press junket revelations.
Music Videos for "Cinema Italiano" (performed by Kate Hudson), "Take it All" (Marion Cotillard), and "Unusual Way" (Griffith Frank) are included.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Nine" crumbles to the ground in a fit of melodrama long before it ends, making the final bow more of a relief than a poignant curtain drop on a penetrating story of autumnal maturity and creative renaissance. All the heaving bosoms, coy smiles, and Italian fashion fetishism can't cover for the film's frightening lack of a soul.