Monday, March 22, 2010

Nine: A Bittersweet Experience

Rob Marshall is a Guido Contini of sorts. He seems to have peaked with “Chicago” and subsequently fallen from grace. He knows how to make each frame look gorgeous, be it the jazzy, stagey feel of “Chicago” or the magnificent colourful grace of “Memoirs of a Geisha”. His problem is that he seems to think that that, by itself is enough. “Chicago” was a relatively easy film to make. It is a firecracker of a tale that needs to be tangy, saucy and larger than life. Those ingredients, by themselves, were enough to carry a film successfully, and they did. The audience never needed to believe in the characters much. They were meant to be cartoonish. However, his subsequent films are both, personal and intimate in different ways. In the story of Chiyo, there are myriad emotions that come together to form a beautiful tale of love, perseverance, penitence and redemption. However, there was no joy in the film which was its ultimate failure. I never judge a movie by its source material. I have read Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” but unlike the movie, the book has tremendous soul. But the failure of the movie was on its own terms rather than merely in comparison to the book.

With “Nine”, Rob Marshall took on the unenviable task of bringing the Broadway musical “Nine” to life on the big screen. The difficulty lay in the fact that the musical itself was inspired by the neo-realist classic “8 ½” by Fredrico Fellini. However, the stage seemed to be set for “Nine” to be the redemption vehicle for Marshall. It had perhaps the casting coup of the century: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cottillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie). All apart from Fergie and Kate Hudson were Oscar winners. The look of the film: from the art direction and costumes to the cinematography looked simply breathtaking in the trailers. The sound of Fergie belting out “Be Italian” sent me in a tizzy. On seeing the movie, I was both delighted and frustrated.

The story is of a master director, Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis) who is about to shoot a new movie “Italia” but he has to script to work with. With his mind blocked, he sees his life spiral out of control as the women in his life: his dutiful wife (Marion Cottillard), loving mistress (Penelope Cruz), designer friend (Judi Dench), mother (Sophia Loren), muse (Nicole Kidman), fan (Kate Hudson) and a woman from his childhood memories (Fergie) all come together to both, inspire Contini and show him who he is to them and in so doing, who he really is. One listens, another learns; one seduces and another haunts. As Contini struggles to find his film, he realises that his life is his biggest stage of all.

The delights first: the cast is simply impeccable. Each actor fits the character to such perfection that it is hard not to get mesmerised. Daniel Day Lewis is marvellous as always. He brings the required intensity to the character of Contini and makes us love him and hate him, just like the women in his life. The women, however, really make the movie worth everything. Marion Cottillard is towering as the dutiful wife. Her final number “Take it All” is powerful and showcases her tremendous range as an actor. Fergie is the showstopper of the film. With a role of merely 7 minutes or so, she haunts you with her bold sexuality and her unforgettable vocals. Her performance is one of the high points of the film and her character is key to providing an insight of where Contini is coming from. On the other hand, “Take It All” is a key sequence to lay bare Contini for what he really is. Penelope Cruz is gorgeously titillating as the mistress who is in love with Contini and is tiring of the secrecy of the their relationship. Sophia Loren and Judi Dench are grace personified in entirely different ways. Nicole Kidman has a minor role, but leaves an impact as the muse. Kate Hudson looks lovely and is excellent in her song sequence (“Cinema Italiano”).

The technical aspects of the film are truly flawless. Very rare is a production which is so gorgeously mounted and executed. The sets are gorgeous; the costumes are spot on; the art work so successfully recreates the 60s look. The cinematography deserves special mention. The switch from black and white to colour and back, the angles and the interaction with the actors and their bodies is simply outstanding. It is a pity that a film like this should lose to Avatar for cinematography at the Oscars despite the latter being 60% CGI. The production numbers are stunning in their look and choreography.

The story is brilliant and the script by Minghella and Tolkin is just about right. I am a sucker for movies about the movies. And “Nine” had all the ingredients to be one of the great ones about the movies. The frustrations of a director struggling to find his voice and looking to his past and present to find answers are both, appealing and intimate. The marriage of the past and the present and the culmination of the story are both well thought out. One only wishes the end had a little more drama to it. There is no build up and no climax of sorts. However, that is a minor dampener, if at all.

However, what frustrated the hell out of me in this movie was the direction of Rob Marshall. Just as in “Memoirs of a Geisha” his direction is detached and distant. He makes the frame look gorgeous but is unable to present the story with the required intensity and passion. One cannot treat “Nine” as another “Chicago” because, unlike the latter, the characters of “Nine” have real emotions and problems beneath their feisty and vivacious exteriors. There are few moments in the movie where the director is able to capture this difference on camera: the execution of “Be Italian”, “Take It All” and “My Husband Makes Movies”; the meeting of the Guidos in the end. He succeeds to a remarkable extent (remarkable when seen in the context of his failures with the rest of the film) in dealing with the complex relationship of Guido and his wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard). Credit here also must go to Cotillard who outshines all the women in portraying her character's restrained passion and intense alienation from her husband. However, for the most part, the adaptation is more chaotic than emotionally intense. For Marshall, it seems that the dialogues are merely a bridge between two dazzling production numbers. He seems to forget that he is narrating a story and the result is absolute chaos. The actors do all they can to give grace to the film and they do, in their individual capacities, succeed to a great extent. Marshall, on the other hand, seems to take the opinion of Lily (Judi Dench) to heart: a director’s job is an overrated one. All you say is yes or no! The mother-son track (so essential to understand the character of Contini) is very poorly done. Sophia Loren brings the requisite grace and charm but Marshall really fails to bring out the influence of the mother and the reasons for the same. Further, the culmination of the story had all the potential to give the audience goosebumps. But in the direction of Marshall lies the failure of “Nine”. The story of “Nine” has several layers (that sort of mandate multiple viewings to understand where the characters are coming from). However, this multi-layered story is given an almost pathetic execution which is indeed a travesty! It fails, monumentally so, to find the depth to the story that was inspired by the real life of a maestro, Fellini. It just struggles along, from one great production number to another, and the problem is Marshall’s direction or rather, his failure to give the film much needed direction.

Another frustrating thing is that the music is only so-so. The new songs fit uncomfortably with the original score of the musical. While “Take It All” has a Chicago-esque feel, “Cinema Italiano”, though well executed, feels out of place as a song when seen with the rest. That also is because it doesn't drive the plot forward. It is a little forced and unnecessary. The song may have been good as a promotional one like "Love is a Crime" in Chicago. The mother’s lullaby is just boring and does little to bring greater depth to the relationship between the mother and the son., which is the most frustrating part. Of the rest, it’s only “Be Italian” that you really take away with you. While the production numbers are uniformly dazzling, the songs themselves unfortunately leave you fairly underwhelmed.

At the end of the day, “Nine” is a colossal loss of a magnificent opportunity. The cast and the story are the stuff that movie masterpieces are made of. However, Marshall’s direction leaves so much to be desired. I love the production, the cinematography, the actors, the story and its love for the movies. However, I dislike much of the music and l loathe Marshall for squandering all the money and the talent and coming up with a final product that in the words of Contini, is a dream that has been killed at every stage and failed to be brought back to life in the editing room. Do I recommend it? Yes. It is great eye candy! But am I disappointed with it? Hell yes!

1 comment:

  1. Is that the phone ringing?
    It might be a call from the Vatican.. :)