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Non-Review Review: Nine

I have to admit, I greatly enjoyed Nine, even if it never really felt substantial or fulfilling. I’m not convinced that the film works as a story, but it does provide director Rob Marshall the opportunity to put together setpiece after setpiece, each choreographed with impeccable skill. Indeed, given his ability to stage glitzy sequences and the sheer volume of talent in front of the camera, coupled with lavish production values and a mesmerizing setting, it’s easy to forgive Nine its faults – the most glaring of which is that nothing really happens for the first three-quarters of it, and then stuff happens which doesn’t necessarily feel earned in the last quarter. Still, it looks damn pretty and the soundtrack is quite catchy.

Now that's a showstopper...

I honestly could never have guessed that Daniel Day Lewis could carry a tune, which he does with aplomp here (being one of only two cast members to get a second song). While my inner geek is a little disappointed he couldn’t offer us a version of “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” (subtitle: “and then I drink it up!”), there’s no denying how ridiculously talented Day-Lewis is as a performer, rather than just an actor.

And most of the rest of the cast are equally impressive, with equally surprisingly impressive vocal performances from Kate Hudson and Dame Judy Dench. Even Nicole Kidman can carry a tune. Although they are all blown off the stage by the raw energy of Penelope Cruz and the unsurprisingly amazing performance of Marion Cotillard (she did win an Oscar for La Vie En Rose, so the fact she can carry a tune shouldn’t be surprising).

The plot, so much as there is one, is a loose adapation of by Frederic Fellini. What with catching Cinema Paradiso last weekend, I’m taking in quite the selection of semi-autobiographical retrospectives of successful Italian directors. In what seems to be so frequently occurring that it’s becoming a cliché, our featured Italian director (who goes by the unfortunate name of ‘Guido’) is quite the lethario – there’s even an entire song here dedicated to pushing the “Italian love god” national stereotype. He is also not really that nice a person. Of course, the audience pretty much gets the message within the first five minutes or so, but the film seems to insist upon giving us the fully intensive “why our lead is a bad person” treatment, until he finally gets it and acts as if it’s some sort of revelation. In response, the audience is left smacking their foreheads and going “duh”, wondering which of the horrible events he’s tangled up in made him realise that’s poisonous to those around him.

That said, it’s a musical – most of the audience aren’t here for plot or characterisation. They are here for what Marshall’s Chicago described as “the old razzle-dazzle”. And Marshall delivers. The songs – all beautifully choreographed on the one constructed set of Guido’s beleagured movie “Italia” – are staged with skill. There’s one genuinely show-stopping number – Fergie’s version of “Be Italian”, which plays over all the trailers for the film – and the rest are solidly entertaining (if they are hardly memorable). Marshall, perhaps having seen Fergie’s “acting” in Planet Terror, wisely avoids giving her any lines – relegating her appearance to pretty much just the featured song.

Daniel Day-Lewis lights up the screen...

The movie spends quite a bit of its runtime setting up its characters and its dynamics. We learn all these intimate relationships surrounding Guido, even tracing his difficulty with women back to his mother – here played by the only Italian member of the main cast, Sofia Loren. However, the problem is that all of these characters and relationships are so painstakingly and carefully set up over the course the film’s runtime that, by the time the film is actually ready to do anything with them, we’ve entered the last half-hour. In fact, the bulk of the film feels like a really long first act, and by the time it feels it has positioned all its pieces in the correct fashion, it’s almost time to go home.

In fact, the actual “events” of the film – Guido’s arc and transformation – feel ridiculously confounded. No sooner has he learnt about himself and been knocked down a peg (a whole peg!) than he’s building himself right back up again. The film’s ultimate conclusion is relatively trite and predictable – perhaps because by the time everything’s set up there’s no room to go anywhere with it.

Still, there’s an energy and a sparkle to the production which serves it well – along with a bevy of talented performers. Everything about Nine drips with “old school” class. This isn’t a hip or modern musical in the style of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or even Sweeney Todd. This is just about good old fashioned style. There’s a reason that “Cinema Italiano” – a hymn to the style and flair of the sixties mode – plays over the end credits despite being only tangentally related to the movie’s plot (perhaps being its most irrelevent song) and certainly not one of its best. The entire movie is a salute to the idea of style over substance, which adds quite a bit of irony to Guido’s attempts to find something substantial to say – he’s very unlikely to find it in this film.

Still, it’s a fun and stylish romp. Pure escapist entertainment with a pleasant soundtrack and a wonderful cast who can both sing and act. I’m not convinced it’s a “nine” in terms of quality, but you could certainly do far worse.

3 Responses

  1. Oh, god, I hated Cinema Italiano. So fucking much.

    Marion Cotillard’s numbers were brilliant (duh), but otherwise, I don’t even think they did a good job at characterization.

    • I don’t even think that it’s that they did a bad job on characterisation – it’s that the characters fit the standard stereotypical female archetypes (mother, whore, muse, wife, confidente, mistress) so well that it was redundant – they could have been cardboard cut outs and we would have got the message. They weren’t characters, they were clichés.

  2. Rule number one: don’t remake classics.

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