Giving “Nine” Percent

When Rob Marshall released “Chicago” in 2002, it was met with widespread critical acclaim. Here was a musical with a fresh new style; it was flashy and shallow, but acknowledged its artificiality with a wink. Marshall was a longtime musical theatre director and choreographer, and although he had never worked in film before, he managed the switch in mediums with finesse. Most importantly, he transferred the sparkling energy of a Broadway musical to theaters and living rooms across the nation.

None of that energy can be found in Marshall’s “Nine” – and in fact, everything in this film, from the musical sequences to the otherwise stellar actors, leaves much to be desired. In this multi-layered adaptation, only the pageantry of Broadway remains.

Perhaps a good portion of the blame could be leveled at the many degrees of separation from its source material. “Nine” purports to be an adaptation of Frederico Fellini’s “8 1/2” – a dangerous endeavor from the start, as there is never much room for improving on a classic. Yet it has been handled clumsily along the way: the screenplay, written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, is based on Arthur Kopit’s book for the 1982 Tony Award-winning musical, which was further derived from an Italian play by Mario Fratti, which was the original adaptation of “8 1/2.” Dizzying.

Although I appreciate the (extensive) effort to bring this film to a wider audience, the final product is so completely lackluster that one wonders why Marshall even bothered.

The concept is confusing from the start, as “8 1/2” in its original inception is a deeply personal film: a meta-musing on the life of a legendary director from the viewpoint of the director himself. So this makes “Nine”… what? A retelling of a retelling of a retelling of one man’s cinematic diary? That’s the cinematic equivalent of a game of “telephone,” ending with Kate Hudson sashaying around in a blinding fringe dress.

The movie follows Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis), who struggles with remaining faithful to his wife, his mistress, and his love of cinema. The running theme for two and a half hours will be “unfaithfulness,” as you question not only Guido’s maddening commitment issues, but also the film’s commitment to its own supposed love of cinema.

For instance, we could say that “Nine” is unfaithful to its overstuffed cast. Just as their characters must scramble for the scraps of attention that Guido tosses their way, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and Sophia Loren must grasp for the thinnest scraps of character development. It’s hard to believe that this movie could betray Daniel Day Lewis, who looks bored and unaffected throughout.

“Nine” is even unfaithful to its most immediate source, as Marshall has cut Maury Yeston’s 1982 score in half, leaving only nine songs. (This may be a blessing – Yeston’s other musical theatre credits include “Phantom,” a lean musical for people who can’t handle the intellectual heft of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and “Titanic,” which sank on Broadway like its namesake.)

What worked the first time in “Chicago” is reduced to nothing more than a few cheap cabaret numbers, scaffolded by bare set-pieces and dopey dialogues. This movie alone may set back the public’s tolerance for musicals to a pre-“Chicago” era; the only reason it’s been nominated for any awards is because it’s the only musical this year.

As the last scene of the movie gently faded to black and the strings softly decrescendo’d, the theatre that I was in kept still. Behind me, a wit took advantage of the silence and made a fart sound with his mouth. That’s really all the noise this over-hyped fiasco needed.