At The Picture Show
(Don't) 'Be Italian'
Rob Marshall's cinematic cluelessness makes a mockery of musicals in 'Nine'
The Weinstein Company
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, based on the Broadway play by Arthur
Kopit, Maury Yeston and Mario Fratti and a 1963 screenplay by Federico Fellini
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Fergie, Kate
Hudson, Sophia Loren and Nicole Kidman
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes
(out of four)
What exactly is Nine attempting to accomplish? I ask that question convinced that not even the
filmmakers know the answer. The logic seems to be, established classic + musical numbers +
crapload of Oscar winners = movie. That is the extent of the reasoning behind this movie's
existence. This is not a real movie; it's just some dumb idea placed into incapable hands that
prevent it from being anything more than just some dumb idea.
Here we have a movie following the steps of Fellini's 8 ½ and interspersing it with musical
numbers loosely tied to the film's dramatic events. (Already that sounds like something not
exactly ripe for inspiration, but we'll go with it as a starting point.) And what does it do with
those elements? Hell if Rob Marshall knows. He's only the director. And in that stead, he has
precisely zero ideas about how to dramatize or vitalize Fellini's story in any way.
Following a famous movie director named Guido - originally played
by Marcello Mastroianni, now reprised by Daniel Day-Lewis - as he struggles through a creative
and personal crisis during pre-production of his newest film, Nine has enough trouble searching
(in vain) for its own inspiration that it can't possibly express anything about Guido's. Marshall's
storytelling technique is alarmingly banal and ultimately pointless. He'll give us a dramatic
scene, then kick off a musical number that may or may not have anything to do with anything,
and then cut back and forth between the two scenes. That's it. That's his entire idea for this
The structure serves no narrative function. Neither scene ever illuminates the other or provides
contrast or context. Do the musical numbers represent what is going on in a character's mind?
Perhaps, but the film never makes that case. Are they expressionistic interpretations of the
goings-on in Guido's life? Sure, but the film never makes that case, either. Are they fragments
of the movie Guido will eventually make? Maybe, but if that's the case, Nine certainly doesn't
Basically, Marshall has no clue what to do with anything he has - most crucially, he has no clue
how to use the cinematic form. Virtually all of his musical numbers, for example, just take place
on a big stage. (Which might make sense in a play, but in a movie about a movie director, it's a
glaring sign of laziness and/or a lack of any creativity whatsoever.)
At one point, we get a flashback to Guido's childhood, when all the boys in the village went to
watch the local prostitute dance on the beach. Then the film cuts to a big production number
inspired by this memory, with Fergie belting out the movie's signature song, "Be Italian" (an
imperative that doesn't seem to make sense anyway, but whatever).
Now then: At no point does the film ever attempt to incorporate these
two scenes into something meaningful for the main character. They're just . . . there. Why is
this memory important to Guido? Why is it important (or unimportant) to his film? Why are any
of these experiences important? Nine doesn't know. Marshall doesn't know.
Naturally, you can't judge this movie's quality against the original work, but for the sake of
comparison, just consider the way Fellini was able to utilize the complexity of his narrative into
something consequential (something Marshall proves categorically incapable of doing).
Early in 8 ½, Guido is outdoors at the health spa going over notes of his latest screenplay with
his co-writer. He looks over to the grass and there stands the elusive Claudia (Claudia
Cardinale) - at first standing still, all in white, then tip-toeing into consciousness, then gliding
inside a close-up as if carried by the morning air, and finally offering him a glass of purified
(holy?) water. (It's my second-favorite entrance of all-time, behind only Harry Lime's in The
Third Man.) Claudia continues to appear throughout the film.
At the end of the same scene a few minutes later, we hear the writer's notes on Guido's
screenplay: "And the capricious appearances of the girl? What are they supposed to mean? An
offer of purity? A tender gesture to the hero? Of all the symbols that abound in your story, this
one is the worst . . ." Voila. It's all right there - Guido's inspiration and its dramatization, in
one scene. So beautifully clear. In 8 ½, the genesis of the film and the film itself were wrapped
intimately together - Guido's (read: Fellini's) escapades, sexcapades, memories,
embellishments, dreams, crises. You can see the creative process as this flowing, conscious
being, with Guido's realities and inventions intermingling.
Marshall is not required to take the same stylistic approach. In fact,
it would probably be better if he didn't. But he should take some approach - try to find
something to say. Only he doesn't know how. (And yes, the irony alert that just popped in your
brain is not lost on anyone.)
Marion Cotillard is the film's one saving grace, injecting warmth and pathos into her role as
Guido's long-suffering wife. The screenplay doesn't do her many favors, but for the brief
moments we're with her, she brings the film quietly to life. She also happens to deliver the
film's one good number, "Take it All." Of course, one good number like that one couldn't
possibly make up for the miserable "Cinema Italiano" (sung by Kate Hudson), which was written
by someone who apparently felt it was OK to drop "neorealism" into the lyrics without the
vaguest idea what that term means.
But then again, that's only fitting - nobody knows what anything in this film means. Not
Marshall, not the audience and certainly not the characters. There may very well be something
under the surface, but you'd have to watch 8 ½ to discover what it is.
Read more by Chris Bellamy