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Visually, Nine is a film to be drooled over. Just skim the cast: Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren. The women are either coolly sexy or steamily passionate and often in lingerie, belting out tunes with deep cleavage and shadowed clavicles or purring at the common man in their lives, Guido. (Well, Loren looks tight and orange, but the gist of her va-va-voomnity is still evident.)
Which makes it a shame that the object of their obsession is such a bore. Daniel Day-Lewis may normally choose parts in which he can do no wrong, but as the tormented film director in Rob Marshall’s musical, he doesn’t come close to drinking anyone’s milkshake. And since Guido is the essence of the story, that makes Nine a bright, shiny snooze.
Marshall’s Chicago wannabe is an adaptation of a Tony Award–winning stage musical that is itself an adaptation of a film, Federico Fellini’s dense, abstract 8 1/2. Guido is a famed Italian auteur who faces an artistic block just when the world is expecting his next masterpiece. His personal life is a mess as well: His mistress, Carla (Cruz), is being demanding; his wife, Luisa (Cotillard) is feeling neglected; and even his muse and go-to leading lady, Claudia (Kidman), isn’t inspiring him. Stephanie (Hudson) is an American journalist, one of many reporters who are hounding Guido for updates, and his costume designer and confidante, Lilli (Dench), tries to be sympathetic but ends up essentially telling him that his angst is overblown. (“Directing a movie is a very overrated job,” she says.) Guido consults his mother (Loren), too, but she’s dead and therefore not that much help, either.
If that sounds like a plot, it really isn’t. The screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella (his final project before his death in 2008) serves only as a general and often disjointed conceit to which the women’s musical numbers can cling, while Day-Lewis paces and runs his hands over his head. Guido comes across as a self-absorbed child—even one of his songs has him confess that “my body’s clearing 50 while my mind is nearing 10”—instead of a sympathetic, stuck artist, so it’s hard to care about
And all the song and dance? Only a few performances are memorable, including Cotillard’s silky, saucy “Take It All,” Cruz’s “A Call From the Vatican”—a scene in which the actress, in a teddy and with windblown hair, has perhaps never looked more attractive—and Fergie’s sultry “Be Italian” the hookiest offering. Because of the mediocre soundtrack, Marshall resorts to trying to inject energy with frenetic edits and, worse, what one Glee episode dismissively referred to as “hairography.”
Which makes the end credits illogically entertaining: The cast’s practices are spliced into their final numbers, from their un-made-up, sweat-clothed, giddy first attempts to their polished, cut-and-print performances.
It’s exhilarating to watch and an argument against Lilli’s glib pronouncement. Nine, perhaps, had all the ingredients of an enjoyable film. But it would have required better direction to pull them together.