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A Musical is a Misfire

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Directed by Rob Marshall (the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) and adapted by Michael Tolkin (Deep Impact, The Player, The Rapture) and the late Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient from the 1982 Tony Award-winning musical, Nine, has everything an Oscar-bait musical/film should have: Oscar-winning and/or Oscar-nominated actors, an Oscar-nominated director, a Tony Award-winning musical as the solid foundation, and an Oscar winner as one of the co-screenwriters.

What Nine doesn’t have, however, is far more telling. The film is short of engaging characters, a compelling storyline, and even worse, considering its musical origins, memorable songs and choreographed numbers.

Nine centers on Guido Contini (a stoop-shouldered Daniel Day-Lewis, sporting a faux-Italian accent and smoking constantly) as he navigates personal and professional problems.

With the start of production only weeks away and his producers clamoring for a script for Italy, a multi-part epic about, Contini flees a press conference and heads for a seaside hotel. On the way there, Contini communicates with his long-dead mother (Sophia Loren), and once at the hotel, calls his mistress, Carla (Penélope Cruz).

Escaping his professional responsibilities prove to be more difficult than Contini imagined. Learning of his whereabouts from Contini’s semi-estranged wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), Contini’s producer, Dante (Ricky Tognazzi), brings the entire production crew to the hotel. When Luisa also shows up, she spots Carla at the hotel, causing a further rift in their relationship. With Carla becoming ever-more demanding, his star actress and muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman) asking for an actual script, and the start date fast approaching, Contini revisits his past. His deceased mother reappears, along with a salacious memory of the local prostitute, Saraghina (Stacy Ferguson), who first introduced him to sex and sexuality. When all that fails, Contini relies on Lilli (Judi Dench), his costume designer, confidante, and unpaid therapist.

It’s difficult, if not impossible to call Nine’s egocentric, self-indulgent, hedonistic, and solipsistic central character likable, let alone relatable. Contini whines and moans about his personal and professional difficulties too much and too often, but rarely faces up to his own role in creating them until late in the film. Professionally, Contini is a victim of success and artistic expectations based on his previous work, but his only response is a retreat into the past and his memories, hedonistic pleasures, and procrastination. We never get a sense that he ever took his work as a filmmaker seriously; it’s just as a means to an end for acquiring fame, fortune, adoration, and beautiful women, all of which Contini has in ample supply as Nine opens.

Rarely has a film had so many Academy Award winners as Nine: four best Actor/Actress winners (Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren) and two Best Supporting Actress winners (Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench), plus Kate Hudson, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress. Unfortunately, most are ill-used by Marshall.

While each actress gets her own song-and-dance number, the songs range from banal to insipid and offer little to no insight into the characters singing them and/or bearing little connection to the storyline. Add middling singing voices — with the exception of Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas, and Marion Cotillard — and the result never rises above mediocre.