Posted: 12/24/2009




by Matt Fagerholm

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On a cinematic scale of one to ten, Rob Marshall’s new musical wouldn’t get a nine or even an eight and a half. It’s a big, splashy mess, populated by A-List actors who may be able to win Oscars, but would be hard-pressed to snag a Grammy. It’s hugely entertaining, but in the most purely disposable of ways. Marshall takes a Tony-winning musical, cuts out several songs, adds a few needless ones, and manages to get an audience-friendly rating. He’s gotten away with murder in PG-13 musicals before, but this one lacks the bouncy screwball spirit of Chicago, and should’ve remained an exclusively adult entertainment.

After delivering one of the decade’s great performances in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis once again proves that he can do anything, even things he would rather not do. He plays an Italian director modeled after Federico Fellini, who can’t help having affairs with the numerous women intent on bedding him. His guilt has left him with a bad case of writer’s block, as he sets out to shoot his new film without a script. That’s the plot, folks. Each woman gets a chance to belt out a number, while Day-Lewis (and his wife, played by La Vie En Rose’s Marion Cotillard) each get two songs apiece. Since most of these actors have amateurish singing voices at best, the film often veers dangerously close toward celebrity karaoke.

What saves the film from disaster are the strength of individual performances. The cast expertly hits all the emotional notes, even if they can’t quite reach the musical ones. Day-Lewis’s role calls for Rex Harrison-style speak-singing, and he’s more than up to the task. The problem is that most of the actresses utilize the same speak-singing technique, which often limits the power of their production numbers. While nearly every song in Chicago was a show stopper, Nine only has two (both of which are routinely seen in the film’s marketing campaign). One is sung by a smitten journalist (Kate Hudson), whose sequence builds considerable kinetic energy (largely a result of the hyper-active cinematography). The other is delivered by the only real singer in the picture, Fergie (aka Stacy Ferguson), who explodes onto the scene like a force of nature, and blows the roof off the theater without breaking a sweat.

In contrast, the rest of the cast appears to be running a marathon in order to sound above-average. Cotillard’s luminous portrayal of the heartbroken wife is wonderful to behold, though one wishes Edith Piaf was available to lip-sync her songs. Moulin Rouge fans will enjoy hearing Nicole Kidman sing again, though her song (a lovely duet in the play) is changed to a rather forgettable solo. Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench are both good fun in their respective roles, though they seem to have been cast solely on the basis of their acting abilities and star power. And Sophia Loren proves that her singing voice hasn’t improved one iota since her warbling in 1972’s Man of La Mancha.

The other major weakness in the film is the editing by Claire Simpson and Wyatt Smith. It lacks the brilliant rhythm and juxtaposition of Martin Walsh’s work in Chicago, which seamlessly blended the characters’ inner and outer worlds. It truly was Walsh’s editing that made Chicago such a smashing success. In contrast, the editing in Nine is cluttered and sloppy, failing to effectively unite the film’s frenzied musical fantasies with its inert plot line. Thus, Nine lurches, rather than glides, from one scene to the next. This material needed a visionary like Fellini to truly capture the vibrant mind of a tortured artist. Marshall is a gifted choreographer and a fine filmmaker, though he has yet to learn how to utilize cinema as a “language of dreams” rather than a platform for music videos.

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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