Let’s pretend for just a second that I’m not a braying jackass, and that I knew, going into Rob Marshall’s glittery and stylish Nine that it’s based at least indirectly upon Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. (You know: as opposed to, say, walking in blind `an advantage in some instances, a veritable saucer of cranky scorpions down the pants in others` and only really getting hip to that particular groove upon cracking open Wikipedia yesterday evening.)
Now, let’s pretend further that I’d seen 8 1/2 prior to beginning this review; that I hadn’t been reasonably content, until now, to allow it to abide somewhere amid the seething pile of titles I’ve told myself I’d like to get around to one day — and that I haven’t been catching, by way of halfhearted compensation, half-desperate chunks and snatches of it on Youtube as I write this. (If we may drop the pretense for a moment: I think I’m kinda liking it. Pretense reengaged.)
Now. Don’t you feel that you’re in good hands?
Look. The truth is this: As is the case with ’most any remake or adaptation or “reimagining” (and make no mistake: These are the categories into which Marshall’s Nine squarely falls), any familiarity with the picture’s source material — be it the successful 1982 Broadway show from which it is most plainly derived (and whose name it shares), the purportedly (if arguably) “autobiographical” 8 1/2, which inspired that work, or, indeed, Fellini’s life itself — will likely add layers of understanding and appreciation to an audience member’s experience; the film, however, ultimately stands (as it must) on its own. (Put another way: You certainly needn’t have seen the Roger Corman original to appreciate Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors.)
Daniel Day-Lewis, stepping into the role once inhabited onstage by Raul Julia, Antonio Banderas, John Stamos, and Jonathan Pryce, is world-famous, tastemaking, ladykilling Italian film director Guido Contini (né Guido Anselmi `Marcello Mastroianni` of 8 1/2, give or take). Caught in the maddening swirl of preproduction on his latest, potentially largest opus — billed as his triumphant comeback after a recent history of admitted “flops” — Contini searches for inspiration, but finds only pressures and expectations. The media want answers, his can-do producer and crew want genius and direction, the women who share his bed (or want to) — his mistress (Cruz), his prodigiously wronged wife (Cotillard), an effervescent fashion reporter (Hudson) — want him. Contini, meanwhile, wants a beginning to his script. As his personal and professional worlds collide, as passion and creativity give crumbling way to stagnation, pain, and rancor, the imploding artist wrings every last source (his mother, his memories, his muse) in his quest for love and self, but plunges unavoidably toward a breakdown.
As with Chicago, Marshall has once more taken the musical, arguably the least subtle and most easily mishandled of genres, and delivered a slick, sexy, pretty-freakin’-cool spectacle. Day-Lewis, despite a hitchy accent (though his is hardly the only one, and, as a counterpoint, my wife literally didn’t recognize him until the credits), is solid as the dark-sunglassed, swiftly dissolving epicenter of a roiling constellation of women, and — who knew — fella can sing! Cotillard, though, provides the film’s burning soul: Her neglected Luisa was, for me, the only character with real, palpable heart, and when hers broke, mine did as well.
And there’s the rub, really. Nine has the look of a classic (and some may well soon consider it one — as of this writing, it’s got 5 Golden Globe nominations, and will flabbergast me should it avoid at least a costume-design Oscar nom), but I feel I’ve just seen one too many tortured-artist-man-child-perpetually-wounds-taken-for-granted-wife-(and-sex-object-lovers)-then-regrets-and-reevaluates-and-realizes-he-wants-to-win-her-back tales to be moved by one that seems a bit more flashy than substantive, no matter how groundbreaking a concept it may have been in 1963. The flash, when it’s on, is mesmerizing (Hudson’s positively dazzling “Cinema Italiano” number is hands-down my favorite thing I’ve ever seen her do onscreen), but ultimately, the in-between fades from memory. — Brian Villalobos