How could a film loosely based on Federico Fellini's immortal classic 8 1/2 fail? Regrettably, Rob Marshall's Nine (2009) proves just how elusive Fellini's blend of neo-realism and broad satire are to recapture on celluloid for the postmodern generation.
As a Broadway show, Nine was enigmatic and emblematic entertainment - a rollicking pop opera more directly derived from Arthur Kopit's book with exhilarating songs written by Maury Yeston. Yet, like Richard Attenborough's filmic adaptation of A Chorus Line (1985), Nine plays more like an exhumation, rather than exaltation of the stage show with the faint aroma of formaldehyde permeating every frame.
There's plenty of style, but regrettably little substance to hang our hopes on with Daniel Day-Lewis as a competent - but nevertheless 'not terribly swarthy' replacement for Javier Bardem; cast as aging film director Guido Contini. Day-Lewis is convincing in spots, yet struggles to lose himself in the role. As such, he never overcomes our estimation that he is not an Italian - the greasy locks and faux accent mere window dressing that speak more to a stereotype rather than an iconic character study.
The screenplay by the late Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin begins in earnest with Contini at Mussolini's famed Cinecitta Studios in 1966, desperately struggling to develop a creative idea for his latest film project 'Italia'. Contini is driven to distraction by a bevy of beauties that enter and leave his life at the most inopportune moments and by conversations with his dead mother (Sophia Loren).
Surrounded by sycophants who cling to his every word as though it were the new gospel, Contini begins to suffer from angst ridden panic attacks that force him to retreat to the country for some rest and relaxation. His producer (Ricky Tognazzi) and press manager, Fausto (Giuseppe Cederna) exhibit a quiet, if frenetic, urge for Contini to will an existentialist masterpiece from his crumbling creative genius. Only costume designer, Lilli La Fleur (Judi Dench) realizes how grave the situation is. Contini has yet to pen a single word of his script.
Distracted by an on again/off again affair with Carla Albanese (Penelope Cruz), Contini begins to reflect on the various women who have shaped his life and career. These include seaside prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie), Vogue fashion journalist, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), Guido's first filmic muse and later, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his latest creative inspiration, aloof film actress Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman). Gradually, a tragic portrait begins to emerge; that of a man on the verge of destroying himself through genius and excess.
Seemingly incapable of sincerity, after retreating to the country Contini telephones his wife to plead for her company, then just as quickly suggests she stay in Rome while he works on finalizing details for his movie. At Contini's insistence, Carla arrives in town and quickly discovers that her love for Contini is not genuinely reciprocated. Shortly thereafter she attempts suicide.
Discovering that the film 'Italia' has no script, Claudia appears briefly for a makeup and wardrobe test before bowing out of the project and out of Contini's love life without much regret. She has already classified him as a lost cause, a rather earth-shattering revelation for Contini that is later confirmed by his dead mother who also casually walks away from her son during one of the film's many dream sequences. As for Luisa, she has run out of reasons to stay married to the man she sincerely cares for. Like the rest, Luisa departs Contini's life, forcing him to admit to his cast and crew that the film 'Italia' will never be. Thus ends Nine on a remarkably downtrodden and depressing beat.
Director, Marshall - who previously scored an Oscar-winning hit with Chicago (2002) is in his element when staging the gaudy glam-bam cavalcade of MTV inspired songs and dances that frequently interrupt the narrative and provide heightening distraction for both Contini and the audience.
But the non-musical portions of the film have no spark to connect these energetic outbursts. Kate Hudson delivers the highest octane moment in the film, warbling Cinema Italiano to a cavorting troop of thin tie, pinched pant male runway dancers. But Marion Cotillard has the most introspective and moving song - the bittersweet 'My Husband Makes Movies' in which the last vestiges of her waning love for Contini are painfully severed.
On the whole then, Nine rates about a three and a half on a scale of one to ten. It rarely elevates to a level in artistry that Fellini himself might have appreciated and completely fails to live up to our expectations for finely wrought musical entertainment.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-Ray is also not quite what we expected to see. In the first place, colors do not pop as they should. The palette is rather anaemic. Take, for example, the first moment that Carla emerges from the train to meet Contini for their final weekend tryst. On screen, her velvet ensemble was blood red, easily the most intense color at the otherwise drab station set. Yet, on the Blu-Ray her outfit merely rates as red, rather flat and even to some extent washed out.
Darker scenes seem to suffer from a lack of solid blacks and weaker than expected contrast levels. Flesh tones are natural enough but fine detail is sometimes eclipsed and even lost during night scenes. On the whole, this is an average looking transfer. The audio is DTS and aggressive during the musical sequences but rather nondescript during dialogue sequences.
Extras include several brief featurettes on the cast, crew, staging and making of the film, as well as a few deleted scenes, an audio commentary and theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)