Despite its mostly lackluster reviews and rather lame box-office intake, director Rob Marshall's Nine is actually pretty entertaining. But seriously, shouldn't any movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Kate Hudson, and Sophia Loren be considerably better than "pretty entertaining"? (Collectively, these performers have amassed 18 Oscar nominations and eight statuettes, though it's doubtful that Nine will do much to increase those tallies.)
Based on 1982's Tony Award-winning musical - which was, in turn, based on Federico Fellini's semi-autobiographical film classic 8½ - and set in a glamorous, fairy-tale version of mid-'60s Italy, Marshall's movie has elegance to burn ... not that, given its locale and cast, we should've expected anything less. And while most of composer Maury Yeston's songs are forgettable or worse, at least they're performed (more often than not) with gusto and spirited vocals; unlike the recent Phantom of the Opera or The Producers, Nine isn't a complete botch. Yet I totally understand why so many have been turned off by this screen musical, because as presented, it really isn't a musical. It's more of a chic, splashy talent show, a parade of thinly connected and wildly over-edited set pieces that gives you almost no reason to care about it.
Nine opens with a theatrical fantasy sequence in which Daniel Day-Lewis' Guido Contini - a once-great director currently experiencing a severe creative crisis - finds himself literally encircled by the many women who have drifted in and out of his life. Over the next 100 minutes, these women are gradually introduced to us: Contini's long-suffering spouse (Cotillard), his unstable mistress (Cruz), his loyal costume designer (Dench), his cinematic muse (Kidman), his departed mother (Loren), a flirtatious Vogue reporter (Hudson), and a prostitute from Contini's youth (Stacey Ferguson, a.k.a. the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie). As Contini reflects on these ladies and their roles in his life, each is allowed her individual spotlight turn (though Cotillard, to our benefit, is granted two), and this song collection gradually delineates the Italian auteur's artistic rise and eventual downfall.
At least I think that's the idea. In truth, however, it's nearly impossible to gauge what point Nine's musical numbers serve, because Day-Lewis' internal, emotionally neutral performance doesn't suggest that Contini feels any particular way about any particular woman; he gazes at each with the same look of mildly amused ennui. Day-Lewis sings well, and physically, his portrayal is intensely witty, with the actor's slouched, hands-in-pockets gait and lazy half-grin-with-dangling-cigarette perfectly symbolizing mid-'60s Italian cool. (He also has wonderfully underplayed comic bits, such as the director's incredulous snort when Hudson's reporter fawns over his genius - a simultaneous mockery of himself and her.) Yet all things considered, there's nothing terribly interesting about Day-Lewis' Contini. His spiritual crisis means nothing to us because he doesn't convince us that it means much to him.
Devoid of an engaging lead, then, Nine is merely an exercise in style - and, after Marshall's adaptation of Chicago, it's oftentimes an all-too-familiar style. Employing the same method of hyperactive cross-cutting between "fantasy" and "truth" that he employed for his 2002 Best Picture winner, the director chops his (non-ballad) musical numbers into lightning-quick flashes of arms, legs, cleavage, and underwear with decidedly mixed results. Fergie's big number, "Be Italian," is a legitimate, powerfully sung show-stopper, and one of the rare times when the film's percussive editing makes sense. But Dench's "Folies Bergère" looks a mess (almost as big of one as Hudson's grating "Cinema Italiano"), and Cruz's "A Call from the Vatican" - even considering the actress' enjoyable gyrations - doesn't resemble a dance so much as an exhausting calisthenics routine. (The performers' vocals, thankfully, can barely be faulted, and it's especially nice to know that Hudson, despite recent evidence to the contrary, hasn't completely misplaced her talent.)
Even at its most irritating, Nine still looks great - Dion Beebe's cinematography is gorgeous and evocative - and it's hardly a chore to sit through; every few minutes there's a fresh bit of visual panache, and a new leading lady, to perk your interest. Yet the only times you really connect with the movie are during Marion Cotillard's scenes. Her wounded-wife role isn't any deeper than those of her co-stars, but the performer expresses her character's hurt with inspiring directness, and comes through with lovely undercurrents of longing, toughness, and regret. Locating the heart in this fundamentally vacuous endeavor, Cotillard is more than a boon to Nine; she's practically a human defibrillator.
ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL
I have a theory why 2007's Alvin & the Chipmunks (U.S. gross: $217 million) and the current Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel ($157 million and climbing) are such monster hits: They're actually pretty good. With its silly puns, dopey slapstick, wild comic mugging, oddly adult references (Taxi Driver and The Silence of the Lambs?), shameless sentiment, and incessant pop-tunes-on-helium, no one would make a case for The Squeakquel as art. But if pressed to choose between Alvin's agreeable antics and the "higher quality" of, say, Invictus, I sure know which way I'd lean.