Nine: Nine Reasons to See Nine
Nine, the gorgeous but somewhat underwhelming return to musicals by Chicago director Rob Marshall, is an exercise in attempting to make lightning strike the same place twice. Here, we have another abundance of scantily clad women dancing on theater sets, another charming male lead that everyone wants, and more actors who want to be singers to varying degrees of success. Why anyone thought a film version of a musical based on Fellini’s famous film “8 1/2” would make money is beyond me, but I feel compelled to recommend it to everyone for the nine reasons that follow.
1. Rob Marshall knows how to put the stage onto the screen. While the gimmick (it’s in his head, man!) is more or less exactly the same as in Chicago, his musicals never suffer from the same sort of stilted segues from word to song that most film musicals have. The suspension of disbelief that causes us to accept people singing on stage is much harder to capture on the big screen, but Marshall has found a way to nail it. Also, he keeps his camera moving and his editing perfectly timed in order to make each number feel dynamic, despite the fact that it’s all really taking place on a stage. See The Producers and Rent for film adaptations that felt stagy and awkward due to a lack of dynamic direction. Marshall knows exactly how to keep us enthralled.
2. Visually speaking, this is one of the best pictures of the year. Each scene looks gorgeous, and Marshall loves to let his camera linger on the beauty of Italy. His lighting is immaculate, his colors are sharp. Plus, when it comes to filming women, few make them look better. He’s obsessed with lingering on the lips, the thighs, the cleavage, the small of the back, the butt, and the smoldering eyes. Perhaps they thought they could get the layman to see this musical because of the attractiveness of the women involved– a futile effort but a nice try.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis, perhaps the best actor working today, gives a shot at being a song-and-dance man in the opening number. It doesn’t quite work– you can almost sense the realism inherent in method acting battling the stylistic surrealism of the musical number– but it’s great fun to watch this actor moving with surprising dexterity around a big set. His singing voice is… well, it’s how you’d expect Day-Lewis singing to sound, but even with the faults, he commands the attention, and certainly his acting is the non-singing parts is the usual stellar performance we’ve come to expect.
4. Penelope Cruz performs what is almost certainly the steamiest 3 minutes of cinema of 2009. The musical number her character is introduced with involves many loving lingering camera shots of exposed sensual areas, as she very gamely slides around on a giant cloth of fabric and swings back and forth on a pair of ropes. While certainly Marshall’s photography of Cruz’s exquisite body helps with the sexiness of the scene, it’s Cruz’s eyes that really connect with those in the audience, and anyone with warm blood flowing through their veins likely found themselves wiping sweat from their brow by the time the number ends. She plays Day-Lewis’ girlfriend, and certainly as her character gets more crazed, we see more than just sheer lusty seduction– we understand why Day-Lewis wants to leave but can’t stay away.
5. Has Marion Cotillard given a single bad performance to date? She’s such a warm passionate actress, and here she gives perhaps the best work in the film as Day-Lewis’ wife. As her husband cheats on her time and time again, she finds herself torn. She wants to stay, as she loves him and admires his work, but she knows that he will never keep his pants zipped up. Still, she feels there were times when they had special moments together, and she lives for those moments to arrive. The real magic of her performance comes when she realizes even those moments were just the machinations of her husband, and all hell breaks loose in Cotillard’s heart. No one of her generation currently has the same level of consistent greatness.
6. This is a negative reason to see it– I hope this film is the last time we see a mediocre Nicole Kidman performance. The last time I enjoyed a Nicole Kidman performance was in Moulin Rouge in 2001. Yes, that predates her work in The Hours, where I thought she was totally outclassed by the other two actresses and only won due to her makeup, and her work in Cold Mountain, where the performance of Renee Zellweger only underlined the fact that Kidman isn’t the prototype of a Southern woman (boy, I’m going to hear about this from some of my female readers who love those two movies, I know it). I’ve had to sit through more awful Kidman flicks than I can remember, though The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, and The Invasion are certainly memorably bad. She was utterly unlikable in the utterly unlikable Margot at the Wedding. The best performances she’s given were when she was cast as icy rigid women, in The Golden Compass and Australia. I strongly suspect the amount of Botox and/or facial plastic surgery she’s had has severely restricted her ability to emote, since I haven’t seen the same sort of spark she had in films like To Die For, Eyes Wide Shut, and Moulin Rouge, and there’s a marked difference in the appearance of her face from 2001 to now. Here, she plays a movie star who has to sing a song to Day-Lewis about the complexity of their director/star relationship, and it has zero complexity or passion. They lower her song at least 3 keys, so she has a stone-faced emotionless alto performance of a soprano ballad, which is bizarre. Perhaps she’s miscast… but I hope that at some point, she can turn her career around and find that spark again. She’s starring in the upcoming film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Obie-winning play Rabbit Hole, and it’s a performance that is depressing when done wrong but beautiful when done right. Here’s hoping she turns it around and isn’t miscast again.
7. Sometimes, there are older actresses that are such seasoned professionals that their mere presence in a film and their unique ability to turn a phrase can take even a one-note role and give it depth and life. Rob Marshall lucked out in getting two such actresses: Judi Dench and Sophia Loren. Sophia Loren is invaluable in this film in particular due to the film’s Italian setting– her stature helps cast a shadow over the film even in a very limited amount of time onscreen. Is there any actress who can knock the role of a woman with world-weary wit out of the park like Dench? I can watch her play these kind of roles in her sleep and still be entertained.
8. In a cast with such heavyweights as Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz, and Nicole Kidman — all of whom have won an Oscar– one would expect Kate Hudson and Fergie to be the weak links. On the contrary, they perform two of the most impressive numbers in the film. Kate Hudson’s song, a new song added in to put Nine in as a potential Academy Award nominee for Best Original Song, is one of the weaker songs lyrically, but Hudson attacks it with great gusto, and performs her choregraphy admirably. Fergie, who you would expect to sing and dance well, has the best song and dance in the show, and she hits a home run. Instead of sporting the usual toned stomach and skinny athletic body she normally has with the Black Eyed Peas, she’s rounded all of her features in order to be the prototypical voluptuous lusty Italian prostitute. She smolders on the screen, and her number is absolutely the showstopper.
9. Look, I’m going to level with you. I’m a musical theater guy. I have some stock in ensuring that the musical film genre continues to live on. Nine, while a fine musical on stage with some big showpiece numbers that entertain in person, was never going to be a hit with cinema audiences. Rob Marshall did everything he could, and The Weinsteins attempted to market it as the big prestige film of the winter, throwing the names of all the Academy Award winners onto every poster money could buy. At the end of the day, there’s more to a successful musical film than prestige. It takes a good director– luckily, Nine has that in Rob Marshall, since he has a keen eye for visuals and a deft touch for moving the camera. It takes good singers and dancers– Nine toes the line here, coming in on the weaker end of the scale in terms of movie musical history. It takes people who just “get” the style– again, while some people are naturals (Fergie, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard), others struggle a bit (Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman), and so the film suffers from a bit of unevenness. Finally, it takes good songs, and I’m sad to say that there are a hundred musicals out there with catchier and deeper emotional songs than Nine. That isn’t to say the songs in Nine aren’t catchy or emotional; Cotillard’s numbers definitely pack a punch. There’s enough here to please fans of musicals… but it’s the non-musical audience that is failing to care one iota about Nine. And while Nine shouldn’t convert them, Nine is exactly the type of movie musical that needs to make money in the future (it’s likely too late for Nine) in order for producers to continue to fund interesting and different movie musical products, and in terms of being interesting, Nine certainly delivers.