Rob Marshall was afforded a great opportunity when handed the reigns to the film adaptation of hit Broadway musical Nine. The play offers a moody and complex narrative, large-scale production design and musical numbers, the chance to corral big names for showy roles, and, one must imagine most importantly for the glitzy director, the hallucination/imagination framing device that allows for some seriously masturbatory directorial flourish and overblown gaudiness. And that’s essentially what Marshall delivers here, only occasionally rising above his long-standing garish instincts. Almost immediately, the irony of creating a Fellini-inspired musical manifests itself in Nine, as Marshall attempts to balance pared-down intimacy and neo-realist texturing with grand spectacle, creating emotional friction from the outset. Bombastic representations of director Guido Contini’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) stifled yet overflowing imagination are realized as musical numbers throughout the film, one performed by each of the seven integral women in his life, but they feel inorganic and strangely distant in context with the otherwise modest narrative at play. And even if one were to accept this conceptual conceit, contradictions and all, a whole other series of problems present themselves.
The soul of Nine lies with Daniel Day-Lewis, as Fellini analog Contini, the actor committing himself to a performance in a manner more reminiscent of his early career than that of his work this past decade. His turn here sees him sink into a role rather than sinking his teeth into one. Following Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis has certainly settled into something of a scenery chewing mode, though admittedly still too impressive for this to be a criticism. With Nine, however, he delivers one of the least affected performances of his career, so natural as to belie the actorly effort, bringing to life a wounded and conflicted soul, too damaged to be functional but too resolute to abstain from excesses. That’s only part of the equation. Nine has several other variables to factor into its grand vision, only a fraction of which reach the level Day-Lewis is operating on. Closest is Marion Cotillard, who outdoes her fine work earlier this year in Public Enemies with a limited but fantastic turn here as Contini’s long-suffering wife, capturing the caged experience of her marriage to Guido and capping off her subtly nuanced performance with a scene of gut-wrenching fracture. Judi Dench also delivers a performance of sardonic knowing, a wonderful cohort and antagonist to Guido’s character. Regrettably, the rest of the predominantly female ensemble fails to infuse the film with any genuine emotional or dramatic core, with Nicole Kidman’s muse feeling like a detached dream, Penelope Cruz’s mistress seeming too disconnected from Guido to resonate, and Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, and Fergie’s characters all suffering from gimmicky, underdeveloped writing.
But in truth, most of the film’s problems stem from Marshall’s direction of this admittedly flawed script. The director lacks the necessary personal touch for this material. Nine‘s intimate story of arrested development and late-life self-discovery becomes nothing more than one giant set piece in Marshall’s hands. In fairness, the production design and blocking throughout Nine is consistently impressive, a beautiful fusion of grandiosity and stripped-down visuals, an achievement echoed in the soundstage that serves as the setting for most of the film’s musical numbers. However, even this fine choice is misused throughout the film thanks to Marshall’s oft illogical and soft-boiled aesthetics, leaving Nine‘s visual design feeling frustratingly mishandled, even if individual frames prove striking. And this is how it goes with Nine right from the start. One fantastic decision or scene or shot is undermined by an equally inane or perfunctory one. One thrilling sequence — such as Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano” rendition — is followed by a devastatingly boring one (every other musical number in the film). And while the final 15 minutes — including an affecting exchange between Guido and his estranged wife, followed by a particularly memorable curtain call — are fairly phenomenal, these littered successes only work to place the film’s failures under a spotlight, leaving viewers with a glimpse of what Nine could have been but ultimately, painfully isn’t. Nine is more like a five.