Monday, March 1, 2010

"Be Italian": Nine (2009)

Maybe I just have a new thing for flops.
I already said in a recent post that I enjoyed The Lovely Bones. This weekend I went to see Nine, which was pretty much dumped on by all the critics and left for dead by the awards bodies after a strong initial run. And you know what? I liked it a lot.
Great movie, but what a terrible poster/tagline.
Nine is based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was an adaptation of Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece 8 1/2. The film is about famous Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is beginning work on his newest film. His production is delayed, however, thanks to the numerous problems in his life: he cannot write a screenplay, he has no inspiration, and his life is a mess thanks to his deteriorating balance between his wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard) and his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz). In fact, the film revolves around his relationships with seven distinct women in his life: Louisa; Carla; his muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman); a reporter, Stephanie (Kate Hudson); his costume designer/confidant Lilli (Dame Judi Dench); his deceased mother (Sophia Loren, ironically the only principle cast member who's actually Italian); and a prostitute from his childhood, Saraghina (Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson).
The women of Nine
The interesting thing about Nine is that even though many of the aforementioned parts are small, every actor makes the most of the part. Day-Lewis, Cotillard and Cruz get the most screen time, certainly, but the others do well in their performances. Two in particular stand out: Dench plays Lilli as both a playful friend and a knowing mother-figure to Guido, and Ferguson steals the movie in her number, "Be Italian," oozing passion and sexuality as the woman who Guido goes to as a young boy to learn how to be a lover. In the "leads" (though really only DDL is a lead in this film, with everyone else supporting him, but I digress), Cruz- the Oscar nominee- is sexy and engaging, and also proves that she has a wicked deadpan. However, I was more impressed with Cotillard's longsuffering Louisa, who watches her marriage, or rather fantasy of a marriage, fall apart in Guido's hands. And her new number, "Take It All," is the kind of fierce performance that makes Louisa the most emotionally resonant character in the film. DDL is reliably fantastic as Guido, which has really become one of the most underrated performances of the year (which is strange considering he's DDL). He nails the complications of Guido, from the jokey public persona to the damaged private one, complete with womanizing and creative impotency.
Of course, director Rob Marshall has much to do with the film's quality as well. Marshall proved he could direct an incredible musical with Chicago in 2002, and here his unique style works even better. Chicago was a mix of Roxie Hart's reality with cabaret fantasy; 8 1/2 already mixed fantasy with reality, and therefore making Nine the perfect film for Marshall's talents. And here he intersects the reality of Guido's struggles with fantasy performances on the unfinished set of his film. In technical aspects though, the art direction and costume design are fantastic, and the choreography is jaw-dropping (especially in "Be Italian," "Cinema Italiano," and "Take It All"), but the true star is cinematographer Dion Beebe. Beebe wisely switches styles throughout the film, cutting back and forth between a modern Marshall style and callbacks to Fellini's style in 8 1/2. It's a wonderful juxtaposition, and an excellent reminder of how deeply Fellini has influenced cinema today whether we realize it or not.
And to think Beebe wasn't nominated this year....
Nine's few weak points come from the screenplay. Written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, the film has dropped a lot of musical numbers and tries to condense a lot of the source material. But this isn't a major quibble. Some of the musical performances are also a little weak; Sophia Loren has proven that she can sing, so it's weird that she mostly speaks her number, and Nicole Kidman's number is in an oddly lower octave. But again, these are only minor complaints.
Nine is the kind of musical that's fun to watch, but also stays with you story-wise and performance-wise rather than just musically.

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