I saw the movie "Nine" on Monday, and all this week I've had the hardest time bringing myself to write up this review. It was just such a depressing experience.
I've always been an ardent admirer of the musical Nine, with its wise and witty book by Arthur Kopit and sensational score by Maury Yeston. Nine was one of the first shows I ever saw on Broadway, and I was captivated by Tommy Tune's simple yet effective staging. But I also enjoyed the show in revival form, particularly director David Leveaux's fresh visual take and Antonio Banderas's dynamic turn as Guido. And the movie version seemed to have so much going for it, particularly the stellar female cast: Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Penélope Cruz, oh, and somebody named "Fergie."
So what went wrong? Two things: the script and Rob Marshall.
I'm no purist when it comes to movie musicals. Two of the best films of Broadway shows are "Cabaret" and "Sweeney Todd," and neither of those movies is particularly faithful to its source. The "Cabaret" movie is almost completely rewritten. But it works. And "Sweeney Todd" removed a large portion of Stephen Sondheim's score, albeit with his blessing. But the cuts, for the most part, were effective.
So, I'm not dumping on "Nine" for all the rewrites or the excised numbers. The problem is that the screenplay, by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, is just plain awful, filled with dialog that is at best banal, at worst laughable. Minghella passed away in 2008, so I'm going to have to assume that Tolkin is to blame for the trite phrasing and mindless bromides. After all, Minghella had a far more august resume ("The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") than Tolkin does ("Deep Impact," "The Rapture"). But who knows, right? All I know is that virtually nothing remains of Arthur Kopit's original libretto, and what has taken its place is often ridiculous. At one point, poor Penélope Cruz is actually forced to say to Guido, "I'll be waiting for you, with my legs open." Ugh.
But I could have withstood the indignities of the screenplay if the musical numbers weren't so poorly integrated into the film. The songs all take place in some conceptual nowhere land, sometimes interspersed with the scenes at hand, sometimes not. So the music doesn't emerge from the mouths of the characters themselves, but rather from some imaginary versions of same. That's not in itself a problem, but director Rob Marshall hasn't given us a clear idea as to why he's made this choice.
By comparison, in the "Cabaret" movie, the songs take place in a Berlin nightclub. In the "Chicago" movie, the songs for the most part are meant to be Vaudeville numbers. Those conceits create a connection between the songs and the action. But how and where are they taking place in "Nine"? As individual internal monologues? In Guido's head? That doesn't really make dramatic sense: Guido isn't a musical-theater aficionado, he's a film director. He wouldn't think in terms of musical numbers, but rather cinematic sequences. As a result, the songs don't add to the movie, they stop it dead.
For me, "Chicago" didn't really work as a movie, but it did leave open the possibility that Marshall might develop an independent voice. "Nine" calls that possibility into serious question. So far, Marshall appears to be little more than a poor man's Bob Fosse, without the vision or the bite. As I watched "Nine," I kept thinking about the stylistic debt that the movie owed to "All That Jazz," an infinitely superior film, and it made me wonder what Fosse could have done with "Nine." Perhaps all the people who knew how to create effective movie musicals are dead, but is Rob Marshall really the best we can do?
I had thought that I would have a problem with Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido, but, although I would have preferred Javier Bardem, I didn't mind Day-Lewis, not even his thin singing voice. Had the script and direction been better, DDL might have had a chance to be terrific, but as it stands he's merely serviceable. And there are a few individual performances here to savor, particularly Kate Hudson as the American journalist, who gets the best of the the three new songs, "Cinema Italiano." And Fergie really hits it out of the park vocally with "Be Italian," although the staging for the number itself is rather flat.
"Nine" opened to disappointing reviews and meager box office. The movie went into wide release on Christmas Day, hitting 1,400 screens nationally over the holiday weekend, but this week the distributor is cutting the number of screens by about 36%. They're trying to put a positive spin on it, saying, "The movie is performing well on about 890 key screens." Hmm, well how about those other 510 screens, guys? I don't think the movie-musical genre is in any immediate danger: "Mamma Mia," artistic abomination though it might be, did a very respectable $144 million domestic gross.
But is it really to much to ask, or hope, that we finally find someone who can put a decent movie musical together?