With a mini-skirted Kate Hudson shouting “Guido, Guido, Guido!” over brassy fanfare, as men in sharp Italian suits preen and prance around her, the trailer for Nine lets earnest Fellini fans know they might prefer to spend another night with the Criterion Collection than check out this musical adaptation of a successful Broadway adaptation of 8 1/2. But those not turned off by the inanity may have even more reason to complain: The humdrum slog surrounding it makes Hudson’s tribute to “cinema Italiano” an ironic highlight.
Like the original, Nine (played here by Daniel Day-Lewis) revolve around the woes of a legendary Italian film director named Guido who has somehow made it through pre-production on his new film without ever writing a script. Distracted by a fraying love triangle, Guido ponders his philandering ways and waits for a “vision” to come forth. 8 1/2 was always a cartoonish fantasy of auteurism, but Fellini’s sumptuous visuals inspired audiences to play along. Ironically, Nine pays far more respect to Fellini’s angst than his aesthetic; we’re constantly told about Guido’s genius, but his black & white flashbacks of life and love in Italia are less striking than a Levi’s ad (and of his work, we see only the occasional screen test).
With the exception of Marion Cotillard as Guido’s too-long-suffering wife, the female stars (most restricted to a single musical number and little more) do their best to bring a little glamour. Penelope Cruz is nearly affecting as his suicidal mistress, her ESL clumsiness meshing with the character’s vulnerability. But ridiculous accents, unmemorable set design (most songs are performed on a glum, shadowy stage of decrepit archways), and director Rob Marshall’s passive, robotic camerawork siphon most of their luster.
The rest gets sucked up by the object of their affection, Day-Lewis, who will never be known for his Mediterranean cool or expressive singing. Refusing to acknowledge the absurdity of portraying an Italian in a musical by playing the role for a lark, the two-time Oscar winner winces with tormented genius even when he’s flirting. Galumphing and belting with minimal flair and negligible delight (Antonio Banderas and Raul Julia undoubtedly brought more sauce during their Broadway runs), Day-Lewis doesn’t resemble an Italian smoothie so much as a bulky Bela Lugosi (and his singing accent undoubtedly has something to do with that). Even Ben Stiller would have brought more pizzazz.
Nine reportedly has the potential to be the beleaguered Weinstein Brothers’ last stand as independent studio heads, and on paper it combines signifiers of previous successes (Miramax Euroschmaltz, Nicole Kidman, the director of Chicago) into a pandering Hail Mary pass to the middlebrow. After seeing the film, the producers’ decision to depict a director struggling unsuccessfully for inspiration after a series of flops seems more fitting than ironic.