Sunday, January 3, 2010

Nine: A Play on Italian Cinema

What can I say about Rob Marshall's film version of the Broadway musical Nine other than, I wish he had pulled it off...and I wish I had seen the original play.

Nine, the play, is loosely based on the life of Federico Felllini - the cinematic auteur most associated with Italian neo-realism and, apparently, a womanizer who also suffered from depression, he was the director of the scandalous (for its time) La Dolce Vita. He also wrote the Oscar-nominated 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical tour-de-force about a director named Guido with writer's block, which also happens to be the story underlying Nine.

In the movie Nine, the Italian director of note is Guido Contini, played with introspective intensity by Daniel Day-Lewis. Surrounding Guido is a bevvy of his women - I suppose you might call it the classical constellation of genius womanizing director's women, including Mother, Madonna (in the form of his set director), wife, mistress, celebrity, fan, and whore - played by a top-name cast, including, respectively, Sophia Lauren, Judy Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and singing sensation, Fergie. This is the same constellation we saw in Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, and really is a staple of both French new-wave and Italian neo-realist cinema.

Unfortunately, not all these actors are suited to bring this Broadway performance to the screen. And while Marshall's technique of interspersing filmic reality with a dream "Broadway" world worked so well to make the movie Chicago a success, it undermines the effect of Nine, dragging it down from what might otherwise have been a great and memorable production.

Because this movie really had more potential to be great than I think a lot of critics are giving it credit for (my favorite quip is MaryAnn Johanson saying that "Nine is to Italian cinema what Olive Garden is to Italian food"), let's address those two problems one at a time.

First, the casting. As in Chicago, Marshall has culled together a cast of some actors who can sing and dance (Hudson, Cruz), and some who really can't (Day-Lewis, Cotillard...and, my God, Lauren). Unfortunately, the songs in Nine aren't as brilliant as Fosse's Chicago - much more classical Broadway, and with a few clunky expository numbers - and therefore, really require talent to pull off. The movie skates along, starting with a clunker opening number from Day-Lewis and a few other big clunkers along the way, occasionally hitting patches of great performances (I finally woke up when Cruz sings "A Call from the Vatican", Fergie's "Be Italian" has the benefit of at least being a good song, and Hudson's "Cinema Italiano" is the highlight of the movie).

This would all be fine, if the serious actors who were unable to sing were at least giving the correct performances. Unfortunately, the actors treat the material as if it were serious drama - with both Day-Lewis and Cotillard giving small, intimate portrayals of lives being shattered - when what we need to have are big, outrageous performances that support the movie music. One might forgive Marshall for thinking that Day-Lewis was his man to provide an out sized performance of a rapacious, Italian womanizer (after all, his performances in both Gangs of New York and There will be Blood were huge). I don't know if the fault lies in the performer of the director, here, but Day-Lewis interprets this character via the intimate mumblings of a depressed director suffering a mental collapse, all curled in on himself and shrinking away from his own universe. That's exactly the wrong interpretation for this movie: what we need is a huge appetite (as we have from Roy Scheider in All That Jazz, or say, Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man), a man whose actions are larger than life, who's charisma makes us understand why women flock to him, and who can carry the fantasy and justify the elaborate numbers. There's even a number - "Take It All," sung by Cotillard as Luisa Contini, Guido's wife - that's supposed to be the emotional apex of the movie, where Luisa laments how her husband is all appetite, and has completely consumed her, as she strips off her clothes in a fantasized strip-tease in front of him and a crowd of lusting men. Given the performances from Day-Lewis and Cotillard, however, the number makes no sense, since Guido hasn't been consuming life but shrinking away from it. It's a good number, and had the movie set it up correctly, could have been a powerful climax to the film, as Luisa strips herself naked in her attempt to break through the bubble of attention surrounding the self-absorbed director. But as performed, with Guido self-destructing and Luisa more angry than desirous, the number lacks resonance.

Throughout the movie, Day-Lewis's performance leaves a black whole at the center of the film, which becomes very hard for the other actors to fill, and like harsh lighting, is completely unflattering - almost to the point of embarrassment - on the weaker song-and-dance performers (Sophia Lauren and Nicole Kidman, in particular); while natural stars like Cruz and Hudson are able to pull off fabulous numbers in their own right. That's a harsh criticism to make of a brilliant actor like Day-Lewis, but the problem isn't the acting so much as the interpretation. Which brings us to the other big problem with the film.

Which is that this is a movie of a play about cinema, but unfortunately, Marshall missed, here, the critical metaphor of the play. Instead, he seems to have concluded that the formula for Chicago would work just fine here: treat the drama as reality, and the musical numbers as a fantasy inside the main character's head (in this case, the fantasy of the movie he's trying to make in his head). This approach leads Marshall to apply some very fine, neo-realistic techniques to the "reality" portions (one thinks of the direction of the boys on the beach in the "Be Italian" number, which is done with outstanding neo-realistic cinematography). In fact, the "realistic" portions of the film become a kind of hodge-podge tribute to Italian neo-realistic film techniques. Where this works best is in the fantasy numbers - like Hudson's "Cinema Italiano," where technique and performance come together brilliantly. However, in the rest of the movie, the reality of the technique undermines the high irony that gives the musical numbers their pleasure.

In other words, the animating idea behind the play, which makes the play interesting (I would think), is the fun ways that one can interpret the form of Italian neo-realism for the stage. Such interpretation involves taking the neo-realistic cinematic techniques out of the story and highlighting them as techniques for the stage audience, thus letting the audience enjoy the sensation of being so aware of film style (as aware as the director must be... and possibly why he has writer's block).

Marshall has taken those techniques and simply put them back into the form of his cinema. Which is to say that he simply re-creates the neo-realist style, leaving us without the heightened irony we would get from seeing it created in the stage play (the only place we get that irony is in the Hudson number).

This is unfortunate, since the style is copied by the unit directors in the film so assiduously. But it's copied too well - there's too little ironic highlighting of the style against the story for the audience to enjoy. It might have been better to inverse the formula: to film the story as a stage play, and make the cinematic moments be the moments of flights of fancy inside the director's head. That at least would have highlighted the cinematic techniques, and possibly led Marshall to find a central metaphor for his film.

Which, ultimately, is what's missing here, and why the movie doesn't seem to hang together. It's unfortunate that the movie opens with Guido lamenting how difficult it is to make a movie - how it's sometimes impossible for all the pieces to come together, suffused with the essential magic that makes them a whole - since this is the same problem this movie suffers from (which is why self-reference is always such a dangerous game).

What ultimately needs to make Guido's movie hang together, of course, is the force of his imagination. That force needs to be illustrated well for a movie like this to succeed - both for the characters who've fallen for him in the story - and those of us watching in the audience. The pieces are all here, but unfortunately, this time, the illustration is all wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the premise of the story, and the idea of celebrating the high art of Italian neo-realism as a kind of low-brow Broadway kitch, and the idea of seeing a constellation of beautiful actresses perform the numbers with ironic style and bravura. Marshall just didn't make that movie, no matter how much I wish he had.

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