Saturday, January 9, 2010

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Nine"

...the next in my occasional series...

Title of movie: Nine

Reasons for anticipation: Musical theater! All-star cast! Beautiful, talented, lauded performers! Singing and dancing! Cool Italian style! Etc.

Seen at: Castro Theater

Songs played on the Castro Theater organ beforehand: "From This Moment On" (Cole Porter), "Torna a Surriento," and some other melodies that I didn't recognize. Frankly, this was one of the best parts of the event, which leads me to...

My verdict: Critical opinion on Nine is remarkably unvaried, and I'm afraid I'm going to be boring and agree with the consensus: it doesn't really work, it seems kind of flat and pointless, and while none of the performers embarrass themselves, only Marion Cotillard stands out.

Elaboration: OK, Nine has kind of a strange premise: based on a 1980s Broadway musical (one that was praised and had a decent run, but never permeated the popular culture), which was in turn based on a renowned '60s art-house film. I was familiar with Nine's pedigree, having heard some of the songs and seen , so I accepted it for what it was... but otherwise, the movie doesn't do a good job of justifying its own existence. If I weren't familiar with , I'd be asking a lot of questions: "Why does this movie take place in the '60s? Why is Daniel Day-Lewis talking with an Italian accent? Why tell this story at all?" I imagine that many audience members who aren't foreign-cinema buffs asked themselves the same things.

Incidentally, it's surprising to realize that Nine is set in the same year as An Education and the latest season of Mad Men. Those works feel like a detailed firsthand experience of the early 1960s--Nine doesn't, it seems too modern.

Then Nine has other problems, like staging all the musical numbers as fantasies of the protagonist, Guido Contini (Day-Lewis). First, this robs the songs of urgency, because they can only comment on the story, not drive it forward. It also makes the movie really choppy, because the songs do not blossom naturally out of the action, but are wedged into it. It feels like each famous actress comes on, has a song and a scene with Guido, then disappears from the movie.

The exception is Marion Cotillard--she gets two songs, and steals the movie with them. Playing Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa, she looks beautiful, has a good voice, and knows how to infuse it with real feeling. Most of the musical numbers in Nine are edited to death, but for Cotillard's first song, "My Husband Makes Movies," the movie slows down and just lets her sing. And through her performance, you see all the facets of Luisa's character: she is proud of Guido's talent, she deplores his weaknesses, she loves him, she hates him, she hates herself for putting up with him, she knows she is the only woman who can put up with him, etc. You understand Luisa better than you understand any other character... because even though the musical numbers ostensibly allow us into Guido's head, he remains kind of opaque.

(Tangent: on re-listening to "My Husband Makes Movies" it struck me as similar, emotion-wise, to "Something Wonderful" from The King and I, which used to be my audition song. Maybe I have a weakness for these kinds of songs/characters.)

And then, that's another problem with the songs taking place in Guido's head: it's the male gaze, robbing the women of their agency. Luisa expresses her emotions so powerfully that it's depressing to realize that according to the rules of Nine, she's not actually expressing them... instead, Guido is imagining that she feels that way. This undercuts the scenes that do attempt to show a strong female perspective, such as when Guido's favorite actress, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), rejects his plan to cast her in the role of a muse who inspires a great male artist, saying "I'd rather be the man." (I liked Kidman's performance, though I wonder how much of this was residual affection from Moulin Rouge making me happy to hear her sing in a movie again.)

Even though Guido's situation is serious, has a rich and bizarre sense of humor (according to Wikipedia, Fellini's motto when filming it was "Remember, this is a comedy"). But Nine doesn't find much humor, even when the situation calls for it. Penélope Cruz plays Guido's mistress, Carla, and in her big song, she phones him and coos about all the things she'd like to do to him. Guido, not wanting to reveal to the other people in the room that he has a mistress, pretends that it is "A Call from the Vatican" (the title of the song). So while Carla is making love to the telephone, Guido can only say "Yes, Monsignor," and struggle to hide how turned on he is. A classic farce situation, but Nine completely downplays the joke.

The blame for Nine should rest much more with the writing and direction than with the actors. No one makes a fool out of themselves, and maybe if the editing wasn't so hectic, some of the other actors could make the impression that Cotillard does. As it stands, performers like Sophia Loren and Judi Dench are basically wasted. Oh well, at least the movie looks nice: I loved a shot where Guido is hunched over in front of a movie that's being projected in his screening room, and it briefly fools you into thinking that Daniel Day-Lewis is in your movie theater, in front of your screen, having emerged in Purple Rose of Cairo fashion. (Who needs 3-D glasses?)

A while back, I mentioned , Nine, Synecdoche New York, etc., as falling into a sub-genre of works called "The Artist and His Women." Now, I didn't think that Synecdoche worked as a film, but it was an interesting failure--afterwards, you wanted to discuss what it was trying to say and whether or not it succeeded at getting the message across. You can also appreciate for its message about the way that artists relate to the world. But with Nine, the only thing to discuss is which performances you liked best and which musical numbers did and didn't succeed. And that is not a very interesting way to talk about the movies.

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