Though she probably won't win any awards this season, Penelope Cruz has become a luminously welcome light in a couple of gloomy year-end releases. Both Nine and Broken Embraces benefit from her startling charisma. But that she outshines Daniel Day-Lewis suggests that something in Hollywood is truly amiss.
If you thought Rob Marshall's Chicago was overrated, his latest musical adaptation, Nine, will amplify your feelings of ill will. A wrongheaded mess of a movie musical, it mistakes whip-pan camera angles for choreography, sexy star wattage for acting, and muddled melodrama for storytelling. There's lots of glamour and flash, to be sure, but all the swirling spotlights, vibrant colors and cluttered stage business in the world can't hide the fact Nine is a kitschy, self-conscious, unintended mockery of Federico Fellini's 8-1/2.
Yup, this film adaptation of the 1982 Broadway musical is based on Fellini's 1963 classic. But unlike the maestro's acerbically postmodern examination of creative inspiration, egotism and morality, Nine is a rudderless journey into a film artist's midlife crisis. Day-Lewis is the broody knockoff of Marcello Mastroianni's maestro Guido Anselmi (named Guido Contini here), whose film career is in freefall. Unable to come up with a script for his latest project (or muster a convincing Italian accent), the megalomaniacal filmmaker turns to the seven muses who have inspired him throughout his life. There's his distant and infantilizing mama (an all-too brief and stilted Sophia Loren), the feral prostitute (Stacy Ferguson aka Fergie) who stole his innocence, a star-fucking Vogue reporter (Kate Hudson), his confidante costume designer (Judi Dench) and a trio of steamy sirens (Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard), who try to outvamp each other in overedited, visually assaulting routines. You know things are bad when Kate Hudson (of all people) delivers the movie's sole showstopper.
To be fair, Cruz and the lovely Cotillard fare best in their eye-candy roles, enlivening a pair of song-and-dance numbers that otherwise fall into precisely shot incoherence. Cotillard in particular almost single-handedly redeems Nine with her wounded moment of angry triumph. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, can only be applauded for coloring outside the lines on this one. Not only is he too weak-willed, forlorn and hangdog introverted, but it's hard to imagine him as ever being an iconic filmmaking genius. Even amid 8-1/2's spiritual and moral breakdown, Mastroianni always carried with him the arrogance and entitlement of genius.
By reimagining Fellini's masterpiece as an over-the-top identity crisis, Nine misses the point of its inspiration while underheating the drama. Fans of Chicago's tawdry narrative will be sorely disappointed by this tale of a frustrated not-so-genius as it zips back and forth in time, erratically cuts between soundstages and live settings, and reduces nearly every character to a song's worth of development. It might have worked as a vampy, tongue-in-cheek burlesque if Marshall had found a story worth telling, characters he didn't garishly deform, and more than two tunes that stick with you after curtain.
Besides, adapting Fellini's 8-1/2 into a musical isn't all that revolutionary. Bob Fosse did a bang-up job with All That Jazz back in 1979. If you're craving a smart, sophisticated and rousing musical, see that instead.
Opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 25.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.