Overly fussy moviegoers who are disappointed that director Rob Marshall’s lush musical NINE doesn’t live up to Fellini’s 8½ is ridiculous and, frankly, irrelevant criticism. It should be noted that Marshall, who has a background in choreography and an Oscar-winning film (CHICAGO) under his belt, didn’t set out to remake a Fellini, but to adapt “Nine,” the Broadway musical. However, even without precedent, NINE holds its own ground.
Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous, sharp-suited Italian director. It’s 1965, so that means he comes with a skinny tie, a pair of Ray-Bans, a cute sports car and, in his case, a diverse female entourage: He has a faithful wife (Marion Cotillard), a sexy mistress (Penelope Cruz), a blonde leading lady (Nicole Kidman), an older friend and mentor (Judi Dench) and the ever present memory of his beloved Mamma (Sophia Loren). What he doesn’t have is a script. And with producers on his back, a needy mistress and a wife who finally gets wise, Guido spends much of his time trying to block out his problems with memories of his childhood.
These memories, along with several scenes in the present, are staged, musical fantasies that get intercut with reality. Some work better than others, like the very first one with Cruz. Instead of talking dirty to Guido over the phone, he listens while she performs a dance-in his imagination-with much groping and moaning and writhing on the floor. The best of these sequences actually belongs to Fergie, who plays a bedraggled whore on the beach from Guido’s childhood and steals the show with her onstage/imaginary dance scene. Performances from Day-Lewis, Cotillard and Dench are obvious highlights, with Cotillard showing great range in her limited on-screen time. What keeps this film from being more than just a series of musical acts is that, unlike most musicals, there’s a legitimate plot at work here; It never feels like a vehicle for more singing and dancing. After Guido’s wife leaves and he comes out of a two-year-long seclusion, he reluctantly agrees to make another movie. This movie, of course, is the one we’ve just been watching. And when the people from his past become the actors who are playing the people from his past, it’s maybe Marshall’s greatest nod to Fellini’s mastery of confusing reality with imagination.