It boggles the mind that someone ever made a musical version of Frederico Fellini's Italian neo-realist cinema classic 8 1/2. That the musical, re-imagined as Nine, ran on Broadway to great acclaim and five Tony Awards in the early 1980s continues to befuddle me. But what confounds me the most is that anyone remembered this show in the first place. Nine features a series of musical numbers so uninspired, I forgot the tunes even as I was listening to them. What about this lifeless mess attracted a powerhouse panoply of talent headed by Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren (plus Fergie and Kate Hudson) must go down as one of those little unsolvable mysteries of life, like where the missing socks go when we put them in the dryer. Personally, I'd rather see a musical about that.
The title kind of says it all. It's called Nine because, I imagine, someone thought 8 1/2 was too subtle. This movie thrives on expunging subtlety, taking the broad outlines of Fellini's quirky masterpiece and layering on a thick coating of melodic melodrama. It tells the tale of Guido Contini, a successful Italian film director in the mid-1960s who's having a creative crisis. He can't come up with an idea for his new film, Italia, even though it's already in production and is due to start shooting in days. Daniel Day-Lewis performs his amazing sorcery, disappearing into the character; I believed at all times that he was the pouty, charming, good-at-heart but utterly caddish and self-centered film director. Really, everyone does a fine job in their roles, and I have no complaints at all with the singing or the acting. The problems with Nine are all with the story, the music and the presentation.
Though the film was shot on location in Italy, director Rob Marshall made the bizarre choice of setting all the musical numbers on a sound stage. The choreographed sequences are meant to be expressions of Guido's memories or daydreams, and they take place on the stages where the doomed Italia is meant to begin shooting. The problem is, the real Italy delights the eye while these song-and-dance numbers look like they're taking place in a tired Vegas showroom. I see Marshall's thinking on this decision, but I'd have much preferred he take advantage of cinema's unique ability to capture real-world locations. We're singing about movies here, you might want to take advantage of the medium.
The choreography, limited in all the ways of a stage show, is dull, and from the opening number (whose main lyrics were "La, La, La" as far as I could tell) there's nothing coming from the speakers that you want more of. Some numbers substitute energy and tempo for quality, as in the Kate Hudson-performed "Cinema Italiano." Just because you can't stop tapping your toes to an aggressive beat doesn't make the lyrics interesting or the song memorable. Again, the performances are all fine. Fergie is unrecognizable (in a good way), and everyone from Judi Dench to Penelope Cruz to Day-Lewis proves they can sing; it's just that I don't care what they're singing about.
Something, anything to care about is what this film lacks most — something more than the internal troubles of a wealthy and successful man who cheats on his wife. With by-the-numbers song and lyrics, and a story bereft of interest or intrigue, Nine left me feeling cold and bored and grateful for that final musical number. Even if it was, once again, on that damn soundstage.