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“Director On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown”

 

“NINE,” the film version of the Broadway interpretation of Fellini’s “8 ½,” has the elements of a perfect TEN, but receives an 8 ½ in the end.  The film’s issues can be tied to both the recent writers’ strike and the death of original scribe, Anthony Minghella.  For even though there are no quibbles about the production values, the performances, and the exquisite musical numbers, the film as a whole doesn’t gel, has slow stretches, and feels an hour longer than its actual running time.

 

In the mid-1960’s, famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempts a comeback after two flops in a row.  However, his big budgeted extravaganza lacks a script or even a synopsis. Instead of focusing on bringing a script together, Guido is amerced in a nervous breakdown.  He smokes, drinks and carouses too much, and his body is taking its toll.  Guido juggles his marriage to a loving, but fed-up former actress (Marion Cotillard), with countless affairs, including a significant one with a flighty beauty (Penelope Cruz). His love for beautiful but unattainable women stems back to his youth, a contradiction of strict Catholic upbringing with learnings of love from a beach whore (Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson).

 

Armed with a lush, operatic score by Maury Yeston, Rob Marshall proves once again (after “Chicago”), that he can dazzle the screen with bright colors, fashionable costumes (by Colleen Atwood) and décor.  Shot in Italy, the landscape is a travelogue of sparkling seascapes and historical architecture.  Cinematographer Dion Beebe combines these locales with visual gems, including rays of cinema projector light that envelope its characters, making them look otherworldly.

 

Production Designer John Myhre builds a fanciful soundstage that doubles as Guido’s imagination.  On this set, Guido imagines some of the most delicious musical numbers that tie into his damaged psyche.  The most remarkable numbers include an erotic lesson “Be Italian” by the voracious Fergie.  Bathed in red and using sand and tambourines as sexual props, her number has the vibrancy of “The Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago.” In another showstopper, Penelope Cruz gyrates on the floor, seducing Guido over the phone in “A Call From The Vatican.” Her sensual singing voice is a pleasant surprise. Judy Dench, who played the original Sally Bowles in London’s “Cabaret” in the 60s, slyly pays homage to that role by singing on a piano before a stage of opulently dressed beauties for “Foiles Bergeres.”

 

Marshall removed several of the film’s musical numbers, including the title song, replacing them three new Maury Yeston tunes, including a Burt Bacharach-infused swinger song for Katie Hudson.  Her song “Cinema Italiano” fits in the era, and showcases a singing and dancing talent untapped by Hudson in other films, yet doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the score.  More fitting is a tawdry strip number for Guido’s frustrated wife, projecting how he makes her feel cheap. Cotillard is all animal energy as she musically spits in her husband’s eye (at least in his imagination).

 

All the performances are perfection.  Day-Lewis allows you to empathize with this genius despite his lack of respect for the women he loves. He projects a man driven by his penis, yet self-aware to recognize his foibles.  The only quibble is during his songs, his accent slips from Italian to the campy Transylvanian drawl of Sesame Street’s Count. Cruz, electric as the mistress, shows the crazy energy and passion that won her an Oscar last year for “Vicki Cristina Barcelona.”  Cotillard, as the film’s anchor, paints a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman who gave her career away to an uncommitted husband.  Nicole Kidman, as Guido’s muse, unfortunately has an Italian accent as secure as Guido’s marriage, but she still manages to find the pathos in the show’s best song “An Unusual Way.” Dench has the best lines as Guido’s sardonic confidante and brings elegance to the film.  The timeless Sophia Loren, as Guido’s momma, shows an ideal that none of the other women in his life can achieve.

 

With all that gold, it’s hard to quantify why the full product still disappoints.  The tone achieved by Minghella appears to be the cause.  Though I have not seen drafts of the multiple scripts to know what Minghella wrote and what was done by his replacement, Michael Tolkin, the slow ponderous pacing goes hand in hand with the scripts of “Cold Mountain” and “The English Patient.” This handling of mood is appropriate for epic dramas but counteracts with the musical structure.  This film seems to be a melding of the best elements of Director Marshall’s “Chicago” and the worst of his ponderous “Memoirs Of A Geisha,” so all the blame cannot lay only on Minghella. Had Minghella lived to the film’s completion (which may have occurred had the writer’s strike not slowed production), perhaps the two would have found a balance to make this film a classic, but Marshall’s reverence to his late friend’s work may have been to the film’s detriment.

 

If one watched individual musical numbers on UTube, they would claim “NINE” to be the greatest musical of the millennium. But as a whole, the film is only a minor success.  Grade: B+

 

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