I had high hopes for this. How could you not have high hopes? Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead in a film is reason enough to watch thiis inevitable Oscar-contender. Then you have director Rob Marshall, Oscar-winning Chicago director with another wham-bam musical. The genre - a musical - following hot on the heels of the Oscar ceremony in 2009 for the 2008 releases whereby Wolverine and Beyonce sang the song 'Musicals are back' or something. So, we have a flawless actor, a critically acclaimed director directing his forte of genre's. Its also a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2 so, the story can't be half bad - especially considering the script treatment was written by no other than Anthony The English Patient Minghella. Then we have the leading ladies playing seductresses of classical proportions -
Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman (who has proven herself in the musical genre in the underrated Moulin Rouge), Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz (having just won an Academy Award for Vicky Cristina Barcelona) - then, to top it off, you have Marion Coutillard, the Oscar-winner (for her incredible performance in musical-biopic about Edith Piaf La Vie En Rose) playing opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Fergie and Kate Hudson also appear, but less said about them the better... There was absolutely no reason this could have gone wrong.
Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) is about to make his ninth film but is struggling to be inspired. He dazes back and forth between all the women of his life and uses, abuses and relishes in his life whilst realising that all this thinking is getting him nowhere. His long-suffering wife Louisa (Coutillard) has to put up with his affairs (his mistress played by Cruz), whilst he confides in costume designer (Dench) and imagines conversations with his Mother (Loren) and reminds himself of his first experience with a woman, played exceptionally by Fergie (From Black Eyed Peas). Kate Hudson plays an American Vogue editor who fancies Guido and tries to seduce him, as he had seduced her through his Italian Neo-realist films. Then there is Nicole Kidman who plays Guido's muse - his inspiration - for his films. All these women inspire and influence Guido and he troubles himself into creating this ninth feature as all these women fight over his attention.
The first thing I realised was problematic was the songs - I didn't really like the songs. Now I like music and I like musicals and I am suprised that I felt this way. I don't go out of my way to buy musicals on CD but if a song jars, it jars. Take Dreamgirls for example - as cheesy as it was, I never felt the songs jarred. They suited the characters, they suited the scene and they were ultimately keeping in tone with the film. In Nine the songs just didn't grab me. The only song that did was Fergie's incredible performance as she sings 'Be Italian'. A strong vocal, a waltz that builds into a cresendo of chaos as we see the young boy Guido and his buddies chase after the volumptuous character Fergie plays - the first seductress in Guido's life. So thats the first problem - not the script, not the acting, not the visuals but the songs and in a musical I am sure there is an argument that those songs are the most important because if the songs are good you are consequently pulled to watch the musical.
'Be Italian' is the only song that works the way it does - the clear contrast between grainy black and white memories on an Italian beach in Palermo and the passionate reds, revealing dresses and fish-net stockings in the studio show the separation of accurate memory and, essentially the fantasy. But by the time we see this sequence, we have seen this studio before. Most songs use it - from Judi Denchs number (though a wonderful voice I have never heard, the song was simply rubbish) though to the first Guido solo. Daniel Day-Lewis singing and leaping over the scaffolding telling us how frustrated he is being who he is. The first thing you see is an incredible Overture as we see in a single song each and every female in Guido's life as he is pulled and seduced and taken away by every woman. This is over shortly and the next number is this solo which (a) isn't very good as a song, (b) visually is not interesting on scaffolding and, crucially, (c) seems unneccessary. To be teased with a big pretty-much full cast number at the very start and not show us anything close to that until the final reel is not fair on the audience. I felt the use of this false studio set was a bit of a cop-out. I understand the metaphor and why it was used, but as a musical, you want them to sing in the streets and not to simply cut away to the studio for every number. In one number, a song by Louisa - Guido's wife - as she sings about how her husband 'makes movies' to the table she is sitting at, except it is within the studio-set rather than the restaurant she was intially in. Considering the characters froze in position for the song, it would have been more interesting to simply change the lighting in the exact same set. Also, considering the lavish quality it wants to present - the scaffolding of a studio hardly reeks of class. It looks cheap. Another sequence whereby Louisa, emotionally tells Guido how she realises she is like every other woman, is increidble except for how we cut away from Coutillard crying about her failed marriage in one scene to a brassy, sassy number in a strip bar. This affects the pace and simply upsets the viewing experience as you never know how to feel.
So, the good points, and there are a few good things. As stated, the whole 'Be Italian' sequence is great (though Empire's Alistair Plumb reckon's Marshall "awkwardly [juggles between] black-and-white shots from Guido's childhood with colourful musical numbers") and there are some nice subtle references to Fellini's La Dolce Vita - such as a billboard at the start with the same poster design and Nicole Kidman's number 'Unusual Way' whereby the entire number is parodying the Anita-Ekberg-Trevi-Fountain section ... but with a lot less passion and eroticism. Though it includes a cat briefly. Bottom-line is, I'd take Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain over Nicole Kidman singing next to the fountain any day in the week. A nice reference touch.
Daniel Day-Lewis is good ... but nothing when put next to his recent exploits as Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York) and Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood). The main difference is the calmness and weak nature of the character. Though charming, Guido is uninspired and lacks a definitive focus and ambition. An artist who has reached their peak and doesn't know where to go next. Confused and continually making the wrong decision. As Tony Soprano said (I think it was his wife in the programme but its always assosciated with Tony) "More is lost by indecision than by wrong decision". Daniel Day-Lewis is a strong actor, especially at this point in his career, and his prescence on screen was powerful and dominant - completely at odds with the weak, 'at-an-artistic-loss' powerlessness of Guido Contini.
To finish, it is a visual feast but the pace was simply not fast enough - it introduced lots of characters, one at a time, without any real depth. It does 'evoke' the 60's Rome effectively (another nod to Plumbs review) but ultimately falls flat on the sultry, sexy, passionate and romantic associations with Fellini's Rome ... which kind-of isn't the 60's Rome Fellini created. We talk about 'being Italian', and though it looks it (the trailer, still, made it look incredible) it sure doesn't feel it. Oh, and in answer to the 'question' of Marshalls directing abilities - on this film alone, I say no.