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Try to Steal a Fiery Kiss

By Ted Boynton | Film | December 28, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | December 28, 2009 |

Nine, director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, successfully continues the welcome modern revival of film musicals, skillfully mimicking the dreamy, stylized feel of films like Moulin Rouge and, not surprisingly, Chicago, which Marshall also directed. A bit overloaded with a revolving door of high-wattage stars, and a bit short on compelling plot points, Nine doesn’t quite cohere and take flight as those films did, though screenwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella inject enough fresh ideas to keep things interesting. Several rousing musical numbers, yet another stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, and strong contributions from Marion Cotillard and Penélope Cruz make for an enjoyable genre film sporting a wealth of smoky-cool flourishes.

Nine also deploys a clever narrative device to soothe those averse to film musicals, weaving the musical interludes into the story in an unforced manner. In lieu of the “I-feel-a-song-coming-on!” conceit of traditional musicals, Nine’s song-and-dance scenes manifest as the inner emotional daydreams of the players. Although not presented as overt fantasy sequences, these interludes slot neatly into interstices between elements of the straight dramatic narrative.

Nine’s story provides fertile soil for a musical fantasia, depicting the artistic and emotional crisis of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), an acclaimed Italian film director who has stalled at a creative crossroads as his infidelities and shortcomings come home to roost. Intellectually weary and emotionally dessicated from his dizzying work schedule and incorrigible philandering, Contini tries to prepare for a film shoot beginning in ten days, despite not having written a word of a script and despite having no idea what the concept of the film might be. As Contini’s long-time collaborator and producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) deals with the press and juggles the production to buy time for Contini to snap out of his funk, Contini encounters each of the women who have shaped and formed his masculine personality and career. Meanwhile, his strained relationship with his lovely, patient wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), comes to a head over Contini’s ongoing affair with petulantly sexy Caria (Penélope Cruz), to whom Contini retreats for solace over his creative failure.

As an example of Nine’s inventive use of music to examine inner turmoil and obsession, as Contini distracts himself with a rendezvous with Caria, he slides into a daydream about her powerful sexuality. Cruz has never looked more sensuous than in her one-woman musical number, a slinky lap dance of a fantasy representing Contini’s helpless attraction to her. In contrast, Luisa’s despair over her faithless husband and his self-absorbed devastation of her finds expression in wistful yet powerful songs reminiscent of her performance as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose. Cotillard’s porcelain-doll eyes and rich voice convey the sadness of repeated betrayal through the same type of internal musical reverie. In this way, Nine finds its legs as a straight dramatic narrative lovingly embellished with musical expressions of the actors’ inner struggles. The constellation of charismatic, beautiful women in Contini’s orbit provides an endless source of such conflict, and the movie is structured to illustrate Contini’s emotional connection to the past and present through these musical interludes, ranging from moody to sensual to brazenly jazzy.

The greatest fun to come out of the film are a pair of lusty, rowdy group dance numbers featuring Fergie as a prostitute who informed Contini’s sexual development during his boyhood and Kate Hudson as a shallow, flirtatious American journalist seeking to seduce Contini during his marital crisis, essentially as a trophy of his intangible Italian élan. Hudson is one of the worst actors in Hollywood, and her blissfully short part in Nine’s straight dramatic plot is predictably dreadful — she’s a junior college theater wannabe on stage with a troupe of master thespians, and it shows. Her musical number, however, is an absolute show-stopper, a hip, thumping razzmatazz that captures perfectly the world’s obsession with Italian style and beauty, reflected in Hudson’s blank fascination with bedding the “maestro” of Italian cinema. Fergie’s number provides a raw, unsophisticated counter-point to both Hudson’s artifice and Cruz’s smoky seductress, and Fergie’s androgynous stage charisma lifts the piece well beyond somewhat pedestrian music and lyrics.

Nine’s primary flaw as a film lies in its narrow focus on Contini, which too often feels like self-indulgent navel-gazing, with the filmmakers devoting substantial swaths of the film to Contini’s intense introspection. While there are few actors as intriguing as a brooding Daniel Day-Lewis, Contini is fundamentally a selfish jerk, albeit a selfish jerk dressed up in the stylish trappings of the tortured artiste. The talented, famous artist who habitually mistreats women, then moons over his shortcomings as a man, has become a tired cliché, and Nine absolutely wallows in it at certain points in the film.

The film also falters in piling on several additional female roles, needlessly distracting from the primary and secondary narratives. Nicole Kidman appears briefly as Contini’s supposed muse, a goddesslike movie star who has been Contini’s lucky charm in his prior films. The film never connects the two with any conviction, however, and when Kidman disappears for the final third of the film, she’s not missed at all except in the distracting afterthought of why she was there in the first place.

Far more dispiriting is the misuse of the queen of Italian cinema, Sophia Loren, as Contini’s mother. Loren appears in several of Contini’s introspective reveries, but she has so little to do that Marshall seemingly reduces her to a figurehead, a gimmick to garner an unearned connection to the fabulousness of 1960s and 1970s Italian culture. Loren hardly speaks and through no fault of her own contributes virtually nothing to the story except her justly revered beauty; what a waste of an icon.

In contrast, Judi Dench’s role is a hearty serving of meat and potatoes, an intriguing change of pace from her usual pomp-and-circumstance roles as queens and government leaders. Dench plays Contini’s wry, supportive costume designer and takes a muted approach as a devoted friend to both Contini and his wife, standing by them to the end while knowing all too well that the end appears to be roaring toward them through the train tunnel. Dench also gets her chance to sing, and her number is a truncated but natural extension of her work in the straight narrative, humorous and revealing of her character’s inner thoughts and motivations.

Nine is an enjoyable film, punctuated by powerful performances from Day-Lewis, Cotillard and Cruz, and by several bravura musical sequences which fit quite naturally into the flow of the film. At the same time, the film drags noticeably in places and could have used a more precise focus to move the story and increase the impact of the musical numbers. There’s often simply too much going on, too many moving parts, some of which are so obviously decorative that they become distracting. Nine remains an intriguing picture, however, an emotionally satisfying musical that will satisfy fans of the genre as well as some of those who get dragged along to see it.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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