A ten, actually


Even Judi Dench tries French.

Even Judi Dench tries French.

Rated 5.0

Director Rob Marshall and the gang at Miramax Films, including his scriptwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, have, if nothing else, proven that artistically speaking, they’ve got a real pair of big ones. The 1982 Broadway musical Nine (successfully revived in 2003) was based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 movie 8 1/2. Marshall’s movie version brings the material back to its original medium of film—tackling the great Federico, as it were, on his own turf. It’s a gutsy move, and I suspect the Fellini snobs are going to want to rip Marshall limb from limb.

Still, there are those of us who regard 8 1/2—Fellini’s thrashing fantasia about a famous filmmaker struggling with writer’s block—not as Fellini’s masterpiece, but as a hiccup in a great career: a movie about a man who can’t come up with an idea for his next movie, made by a man who couldn’t come up with an idea for this one. For those who view the original as a sacred text not to be trifled with, Nine will probably look like a desecration; for the rest of us, it’s a stylish, theatrically heady riff on the theme of professional and personal obsessions.

In the 1982 musical, 8 1/2’s Guido Anselmi became Guido Contini, played in the movie by Daniel Day-Lewis. The setting is Rome in 1965, and we first see Guido at a press conference, where reporters remind him that his last couple of movies have flopped and ask what his next one is going to be about. Guido’s producer (Ricky Tognazzi) crows that it’ll be an epic called Italia, but Guido himself smoothly parries questions about exactly what that means.

Once he escapes from the crucible of the press, we learn why Guido is so coy about the details: He doesn’t have any. He can’t come up with a story, or characters, or even an idea. He’s got other things on his mind, all of them female. There’s his wife and former leading lady Luisa (Marion Cotillard), who suffers his frequent affairs with wounded disdain; his married mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz), libidinous and obsessively needy; his former star and muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), whom he hopes to lure back to work with him again, but who wants to see a script first; and the ghost of his beloved mother (Sophia Loren), loving and accepting—if only in Guido’s nostalgic memory. Rounding out this regiment of women are Lilli (Judi Dench), Guido’s clear-eyed costume designer; Saraghina (Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas), the prostitute who introduced the boy Guido (Giuseppe Spitaleri) to the mysteries of sex; and Stephanie (Kate Hudson), a reporter for Vogue who wants to be Guido’s next groupie.

The movie version of Nine is a major rethinking of the stage musical, much like what Bob Fosse (Rob Marshall’s obvious inspiration) did for his film of Cabaret. Arthur Kopit’s stage book is streamlined, simplified and opened up by Tolkin and Minghella—and, risking the ire of cinéastes, brought closer to Fellini’s original structure. Many of Maury Yeston’s songs have been cut (and a handful of new ones added), and most of the musical numbers take place either on a chaotic soundstage set symbolizing Guido’s unformed script idea, or in a kind of limbo within the characters’ heads. (One of the few exceptions is Kidman’s sultry version of the score’s best song, “Unusual Way,” sung directly to Guido on a dark Roman street—but even that may be only his imagination.) As he did in Chicago, Marshall leans a bit too heavily on music-video editing, but the songs are staged with élan and visual panache. (Still, the simplest numbers are the best: Kidman’s song; and Cotillard’s riveting, wrenching take on “My Husband Makes Movies.”)

As Guido, Day-Lewis sports an insouciant Italian accent, although he’s supposedly speaking Italian. But then, so many of the cast speak genuinely accented English that the convention was probably unavoidable (even Dame Judi takes a sporting shot at French). More important, Day-Lewis carries the film’s dramatic heft with ease, and he handles his two songs without a trace of the what-the-hell-am-I-doing-in-a-musical chagrin that has dogged actors from Lee Marvin to Pierce Brosnan.

Rob Marshall may be the most assured stylist working in movies today, and Nine is Marshall at the top of his game.