E: What went wrong with Nine? Start with Rob Marshall, the director of Best Picture winner Chicago. Have the screenplay been one of Anthony Minghella’s last projects. Use the story of Federico Fellini, one of the greatest film directors of world cinema. Bring in as your lead the two time Best Actor winner, reclusive chameleon Daniel Day Lewis. For good measure, sprinkle in a few more Oscar winners (Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Lauren and Penelope Cruz) a lowly nominee (Kate Hudson) and a rock star (Fergie). How could such a recipe possibly fail? All year, Oscar Watchers have expected Nine to compete for all the big prizes – Best Picture, Director, the Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, box office success.
Instead, it was a critical and box office flop.
This happens every year, of course. There’s always a Nine, an Amelia or Havana or Memoirs of a Geisha. There’s always a Cold Mountain or Legends of the Fall, a perfectly pedigreed film with an amazing cast that just doesn’t work. And of course those are the movies that disappoint us the most, because we go into them expecting such pleasure. And that disappointment is the case here. This is a film that cost $80 million to make, and brought in under $40 million at the box office, world wide. This isn’t merely a film with a bad reputation; in my eyes at least, it’s a failed story. And for me, it was doomed from the start.
As his wife Louisa tells him, director Guido Contini isn’t a man, he’s an appetite. When we meet him, he’s struggling to hold together the production on his new film, Italia (which he has yet to write); weakly clinging to his foundering marriage; desperate to satisfy his coworkers, the ever-present press, and his emotionally fragile bombshell of a mistress. He’s famous, lauded, sleek, seemingly on top of the world – and yet his last two productions were flops. And he has no inspiration. He bemoans his lot, crying out to his dead mother, but never spending a moment in real reflection or self-assessment. He simply moves from one lie to the next, spinning out the words he believes will suit his various audiences. And he can’t even lie with originality. It’s all rote.
Someone seems to have thought this man’s breakdown was interesting enough to make a movie and then a musical and now another movie about. The problem, to me, is that he starts off broken down. There’s not enough man to see. He’s already loathsome. The other characters seem to be responding to his reputation, to some shell of a man, to his past. Perhaps if we’d seen some of this, we’d see the attraction. And believe me, I never thought in my life I’d be struggling to understand why anyone found Daniel Day Lewis attractive. The man is fierce as a knife, intense as a magnet. Yet here, he’s given no core, nothing to be. He responds, but he doesn’t act.
And then there’s the music. As with Chicago, Marshall stages the musical numbers as part of Guido’s fractured fantasy life. Sometimes they overlap with conversations he’s having, and sometimes they occur when he’s alone thinking of someone. I suppose they’re meant to take the place of all he can’t say, or of the ways he can’t connect with the people around him and must construct a film inside his head to make sense of it all. (We also see memories, chiefly of his mother and of a local hooker/madwoman.) That’s well and good. The problem is, the songs just aren’t that great. Oh, there’s some fun instrumentation with congo drums; it’s fun to see Kate Hudson rollicking on stage in full ’60s gear, dripping with fringe and channeling her mother. But other than “Be Italian,” there’s nothing worth humming from this movie, and whatever else you feel, you should come out of a movie musical singing its songs.
We get some blathering about Contini’s inner child. I’m sure the movie wants to make some sort of statement on the inherent selfishness of great artists, or the nature of inspiration and how artists burn up their muses, or why artists should be excused from the responsibilities of having burnt up everyone around them. None of that interests me, frankly. The most reasonable anyone appeared was Cotillard, as wife Lousia, when she finally understands how unreal her husband’s real life is, and Kidman, when she hears Contini trying to conjure a plot line for Italia – in which she is to play the women who inspire all great Italians, as a sort of time traveling historical epic – and deadpans “I’d rather be the man.” The women, as she observes rightly, are only ciphers, statues on pedestals. Basically, the movie wants to make this story mean something – about Art, about human relationships, maybe – and yet we have an host of pretty, empty characters singing empty songs that fly out of your head as soon as they end. We have a pretty pretty surface with nothing underneath, and the smoke and mirrors can’t disguise that.
Frankly, I think Nine was pretty lucky. It scored 4 Oscar nominations – more than critically lauded films like The Last Station and An Education. Finer, undervalued films like (500) Days of Summer or State of Play have none. I’m not going to cry for Rob Marshall. Of course, Penelope Cruz, the film’s lone acting nominee, is merely racking up another notch on her nomination tally, rather than having a chance of beating Mo’Nique. (I don’t know why, but I never think I’m going to like Penelope Cruz, and yet I almost always do. This was a character I’ve never seen from her, sexy but weak, dim and needy, and I was impressed. Was she better than Samantha Morton in The Messenger or Julianne Moore in A Single Man? Harder to say. I don’t feel bad about her nomination, though, which surprised me.) People who care about clothes should be happy that Penelope will be on hand; she hits the red carpet like a queen, sexy and regal. Marion Cotillard sang “Take it All” nicely enough; I could understand what she was saying and it had a lot of emotional resonance, which is more than I can say for a lot of the other songs. (I wonder if Daniel Day Lewis made this movie for the chance to work with her? He famously extolled her Oscar winning role in La Vie En Rose as the best he’d ever seen.) Still, I can’t imagine this number beating out gloriously exciting jazz like “Down in New Orleans” and “Almost There,” or deeply felt roots music like “The Weary Kind.”
The costumes are marvelous – the triumph of style as substance, as Kate Hudson’s fashion journalist would say; I suspect they’ll lose to the more marvelous gowns of The Young Victoria, but still, they’re period appropriate, glamorous and fun. You’ve only to look at Nicole Kidman’s Brigitte Bardot wigs and white gowns to see that. The Production Design nomination? I’m not as sure about that one. I love the way the Italia set is lit during Guido’s fantasies, and the seaside hotel is stunning, and Rome is stunning, but I don’t know. The set itself seemed a little uninspired to me. But then, in a movie about a lack of inspiration, perhaps that was the point.