1960’s Rome really was “La Dolce Vita.” Indeed, fast cars, beautiful women, and glamorous parties constantly distract a celebrated director who bears a conspicuous resemblance to Federico Fellini’s alter-ego in his 1963 masterpiece 8½. Like Fellini’s Guido Anselmo, the Italian auteur Guido Contini suffers from a persistent writer’s block that directly contributes to his impending breakdown in Nine (trailer here), Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Maury Yeston’s Broadway stage musical opening tomorrow in New York.
Fellini’s title, 8½, referred to its numerical place in his filmography when counting his previous shorts and collaborations as halves, which the stage musical simply rounded up to Nine. However, unlike the enormously influential Fellini, whose previous stand alone film was the widely acclaimed La Dolce Vita, Contini is coming off two so-called flops as the film opens.
Contini might have a vague concept for the next film he is about to start shooting, but he does not have anything remotely resembling a script. While his cast and crew recognize his genius, their patience has its limits. Contini has always drawn inspiration from the women who loved him, including his late mother, whose imagined spirit is still a presence in his life. Yet, it appears the well has run dry for the director. Now in addition to sabotaging his marriage with serial philandering, the director also faces the very real possibility of professional disaster as well.
A veritably star-studded cast plays Contini’s muses, including some actresses not known for their vocal chops. Happily, they mostly fare reasonably well in the film’s musical numbers under Marshall’s guidance. Particularly notable is a still stunning Sophia Loren (the classic face of Italian cinema whom Fellini once tried to cast in a film he ultimately never made) as Mamma Contini. She acquits herself with genuine grace in her musical feature, “Guarda La Luna,” and her striking entrance during the opening number ought to generate affectionate applause in theaters.
Amongst Contini’s love interests, Marion Cotillard is truly the class of the picture as his long-suffering wife, Luisa. Sensitive but sultry, it is difficult even for Contini to understand why he cheats on her. However, on the other end of the spectrum, Kate Hudson is a near disaster as an American Vogue reporter who tempts the filmmaker’s wandering eye. Her highly-glossed, over-produced “Cinema Italiano” feels more like bad 1980’s MTV than sophisticated musical theater.
In between the extremes, Dame Judi Dench does not especially distinguish herself musically, but brings seasoned character to the film as Lilli, Contini’s shrewd costume designer and surrogate mother-figure. Conversely, Nicole Kidman never really has a chance to flesh out the role of Claudia Jenssen, a bombshell actress transparently inspired by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, but she delivers the film’s standout vocal performance with “Unusual Way.” While Penelope Cruz’s scenes as Contini’s unstable mistress Carla are a bit over the top, there is no denying she brings a sex appeal appropriate to the film’s spirit.
As Contini, a character based on Marcello Mastroianni’s 8½ protagonist, originated on-stage by Raul Julia, and revived in 2003 by Antonio Banderas, Daniel Day-Lewis holds the impressionistic film’s fractured narrative together fairly well. However, Marshall’s technique of setting the song-and-dance interludes in a quasi-fantasy setting (in this case the unused set of Contini’s ill-fated production) worked much better in his Oscar-winning Chicago. Yet, the greatest advantage of his previous movie musical adaptation was a far more distinctive and catchier Kander and Ebb score.
Clearly, Marshall is enamored with the hip style of swinging sixties Italy, and indeed, what’s not to like? It reaches such an extent though, that Nine sometimes feels more like a tribute to Italian elegance than a dramatically satisfying story. Still, it offers plenty of entertaining flash and dazzle. In fact, though the film is never really risqué, John DeLuca’s choreography has a certain sauciness that should make it more appealing to young male viewers than most movie musicals. For true film-lovers though, its greatest joys are the showcases it provides for the ever-radiant Loren and another compelling star turn from Cotillard. It opens tomorrow (12/18) at the Clearview Ziegfeld Theatre.
(Photo: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.)