There's a remarkable scene in There Will Be Blood where Daniel Plainview goes to a brothel and we are left with only a relentlessly tight close-up of Daniel Day-Lewis's face. Rob Marshall's new musical Nine begins with a splashy widescreen number featuring the film's ensemble of leading ladies, yet a similar close-up of his lead actor's visage would have been preferable to the clutter in the dark passing for choreography.
You know you're in for a stinker within those first five minutes, a grim epiphany that I'm sure dawned on even the vapid Oscar forecasters breathlessly pronouncing for months that Nine sight unseen was a sure-fire contender. Its pedigree is certainly impressive: a director with a Best Picture winner already to his credit; an actor with two statuettes on his mantle; and six actresses with wins as well. The cast gives it the old college try, but they're working against a few insurmountable flaws -- the songs are terrible, the staging abysmal, and most of them can't sing in the first place.
Marshall overcame similar obstacles with Chicago, a film that's now derided for being as deep as a puddle, but one I still admire for its wit and energy and jaunty amorality (a tonic in early-aughts culture). The actors in that picture were having a blast -- Renee Zellwegger finally clogged up her tear-ducts and embraced her inner narcissist, Catherine Zeta-Jones her Jazz-Age hoofer, Queen Latifah her ripe sexiness, and Richard Gere his charm. The cinematography had a pasty quality, and some of the numbers were clumsily stitched together. But the editing as a whole helped move things along at quite a clip.
In contrast, Nine is sluggish and deadly dull. The scenes -- musical, comedic or dramatic -- have no oomph, and many of its master thespians look lost. Day-Lewis understandably wanted a break from heavy-lifting roles, but he's just coasting here. It's not a lazy performance: he empathizes with the character, a world-famous though creatively-blocked Italian filmmaker with the nearly unrhymeable name Guido Contini ("He drove a...Lamborghini"?); yet I suspect he was more committed to cobbling shoes during his sabbatical a few years back. As for the actresses, each playing a woman with a prominent role in Guido's life -- Marion Cotillard (estranged wife), Penelope Cruz (high-maintenance mistress), Nicole Kidman (unattainable muse), Kate Hudson (song-and-dance challenged journalist), Sophia Loren (mommy dearest), Stacy Ferguson (whore), and Judi Dench (M) -- the nicest thing to say is their flattering costumes make Nine the hilliest movie this side of Vertical Limit. As is often the case in her films, only Cotillard makes an impression. She broke out of Michael Mann's wax-museum Public Enemies to resemble a human being, and here she emerges from Marshall's dim lighting in the film's best (and most Chicagoesque) sequence, a striptease where Guido's button-down wife reveals her sexuality. It's as bad a song as the rest, but Cotillard lends it conviction.
Unfortunately, her director has none whatsoever. For a film set in vibrant 1960s Italy, adapted from a popular stage musical that was itself based on Fellini's 8 1/2, Nine is an indoor movie ensconced in shadows. (As usual, Marshall has zero sense of mise-en-scene.) And evidently the sound designer thought that the best way to make the music tolerable was to amplify the volume: I came out Avatar 3-D without problems, but Nine left me with a splitting headache. Marshall must have known the material was rank and so relied on smoke and mirrors in a desperate attempt to slip it past us. Too bad this time he lacks the ol' razzle-dazzle.