Nine Review

(3.5 STARS)

I watched Fellini’s “8 1/2,” the inspiration for “Nine,” a few weeks ago in preparation for Rob Marshall’s big and bold musical. It was a heady trip into a film director’s fantasy. “Nine” proves to be a worthy follow-up, and it improves on Fellini’s film in one important way. As interesting as that film was, it kept the viewer completely detached emotionally. It was a film to be studied, not enjoyed. “Nine,” however, is pure entertainment, and while it’s not as emotionally resonant as some of 2009’s best films (such as “Precious”), it makes sure you are invested in these characters.

Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of Italy’s most famous film directors in the 1960s. His next project, Italia, is about to start filming, but Guido hasn’t written a word. After a brutal press conference, Guido takes off and checks himself into a spa in order to relax. But his troubles follow him. Both his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), and his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz), show up, and Guido struggles to balance his time between the two. The entire crew for the film also appears, including his costume designer and confidant, Lilli (Judi Dench). Meanwhile, an American reporter (Kate Hudson) tries to seduce him, and his leading actress, Claudia Jensen (Nicole Kidman), is growing frustrated over not yet having a script. Guido meets with a doctor and a cardinal in order to get some guidance, but the only solace he can truly get is within his mind. He fantasizes about the women in his life, especially his Mamma (Sophia Loren) as he travels back to the simpler time of his childhood.

The title of the film refers to Italia, Guido’s ninth film. However, there are ten big musical numbers (a very minor, but kind of frustrating detail for me; why couldn’t they keep with the title?). Anyway, the number is ultimately unimportant because the musical sequences are absolutely epic. The best of the bunch is “Be Italian” featuring Fergie as a whore from Guido’s childhood. Runners-up include both of Marion Cotillard’s numbers, “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Take It All,” as well as Judi Dench’s number “Folies Bergere.”

The worst number easily is Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano.” It’s actually quite energetic and beautifully filmed, but its inclusion is unnecessary at best. Her character, as well as the scene in question, adds absolutely nothing to the plot or the film as a whole. It represents the film’s biggest flaw.

The entire film is one of the most beautiful technical films I’ve seen this year. The lighting is extraordinary (Guido’s final musical number is the best example of this with a film projecting on nothing ala “Inglourious Basterds”). The cinematography is tremendous, switching from black-and-white to color and using real life elements in the fantasy sequences (and vice versa). The costumes are lavish. The scenery of Italy is gorgeous. And the music, of course, is excellent.

The acting all-around is very good. Daniel Day-Lewis continues his streak of great performances. He does Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi justice and shows he has a surprisingly good singing voice. He’s very charismatic but exhausted and frustrated. Day-Lewis conveys them both very well.

Of the women, Marion Cotillard is the standout by far. I wish she wasn’t being campaigned as a lead actress, not only because she isn’t, but because I think she would have a great chance for a nomination as a supporting actress. Maybe the Academy will surprise us. Her Luisa is the emotional heart of “Nine.” Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench are the best of the rest of the ladies. Lilli has some of the film’s best lines, and Carla is actually somewhat sympathetic (considering she’s playing a mistress). As stated earlier, Kate Hudson’s Stephanie is a pointless role. Hudson doesn’t necessarily do a bad job, but the character is forced into the proceedings without a purpose. The other less memorable actress is Nicole Kidman. Again, I think it’s more a fault of the screenplay (by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella), for we don’t meet Claudia until well into the film’s second half. By that time, we almost feel like Guido, exhausted by all the people around him, and the film doesn’t really need another major character.

I think its suffering in critical circles from inflated expectations (think former early Oscar frontrunners “Dreamgirls” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” that didn’t end up with Best Picture nominations). And in terms of box office, I think it’s not the film people are expecting. The previews are making it out to be this lavish musical, which it is, but it’s also more. It’s light on plot and heavy on fantasy, which I think serves it well.

I have no idea what to expect in terms of Oscar nominations. I think it still will get a Best Picture nomination, but it’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth. The Best Actor race seems all but locked up with Daniel Day-Lewis just outside the Top 5. Best Supporting Actress nominations could go to Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, and/or Judi Dench. I think one will get in. I hope it’s Cotillard, but expect it will be Cruz. It should land a big number of tech nods including costume design, art direction, and original song, among others.

Despite its flaws, I thought “Nine” was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s more thoughtful than most big screen musicals, and most importantly, it doesn’t lose sight of its main goal: to entertain.

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