Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz don't add up to much in 'Nine'
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 25, 2009; WE17
"Nine" bounces into theaters as a bright, shiny bauble of cinematic self-reference and mythologizing, begging so insistently to be loved that it winds up pushing the audience away. Rob Marshall's frantic, fussy adaptation of the Broadway musical -- which itself was an adaptation of a classic film -- suffers all the distortion that its hall-of-mirrors provenance suggests. It's a film within a film about a film within a film, and seems to lose layers of authenticity with each iteration, finally becoming a profoundly alienating experience.
"Nine" is about Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a legendary Italian filmmaker who in 1965, on the eve of directing his latest picture, finds himself creatively blocked and preoccupied with the women in his life, madonnas and whores alike. An insurmountable flaw of "Nine" is that it asks viewers so blithely to identify with a protagonist whose overwhelming ego, insecurity and selfishness they're meant to confuse with artistic genius.
Guido, of course, was invented by Federico Fellini in his 1963 movie "8 1/2 ," a semi-autobiographical reverie on art, sex, obsession and forgiveness. But the characters and material that in Fellini's hands made for such a delicate, funny and self-aware meditation become in "Nine" a meaningless exercise in style for its own sake, whipped by Marshall into a nearly incomprehensible froth. It's a measure of how disjointed the movie is that, when a reel was shown out of order at a recent screening, no one appeared to notice.
The grabber about "Nine" is that it stars Nicole Kidman, Penlope Cruz, Marion Cotillard and Kate Hudson, some of the screen's hottest actresses in both meanings of that word. Judi Dench and Sophia Loren are also on hand to lend gravitas, as well as Fergie, the pop-star outlier who delivers one of many brassy, bawdy set pieces, as a prostitute from Guido's past. Where that number goes out of its way to be sexually aggressive, by far the most crassly erotic performance goes to Cruz, who as Guido's mistress sings an ode to carnality using two ropes as the rough analogue to a stripper's pole.
Every actress gets her moment, each with a song that is more instantly forgettable than the last. In "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls," Marshall proved that he doesn't know how to film dancers, compulsively cutting away from movement rather than letting it play. Oddly, Marshall's edit-happy style matters less with "Nine," which doesn't feature dancing so much as metrically timed writhing, stomping, sashaying and posing. (The "Glee" kids would call it "hairography.")
Day-Lewis's singing voice is undistinguished, but his spoken voice, with its silken lower registers, is seductively musical; still, he can't imbue much interest in a portrait of the artist as a raging -- and aging -- narcissist. Of all his gorgeous co-stars, Cotillard alone delivers something that resembles a true performance, in a smoldering, heartbreaking turn as Guido's long-suffering wife.
Cotillard's moments slow the proceedings a bit, inviting viewers to contemplate a fleeting view of genuine human vulnerability. As for the rest of "Nine," it's crammed and crazy and ultimately kind of craven, baiting filmgoers with star power and showstoppers and delivering little more than pastiche.
Here's an idea: To experience all the joys of "Nine," do yourself a favor and rent "8 1/2 " and "All That Jazz." Pop some popcorn, plump up the couch cushions and settle in for a delicious, dazzling night at the movies.
At area theaters. Contains sexual content and smoking.