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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2010

(Don't) 'Be Italian'

Rob Marshall's cinematic cluelessness makes a mockery of musicals in 'Nine'

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 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 movie.

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 know it.

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 , 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 , 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 to discover what it is.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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