Sunday, December 27, 2009

Review - Nine

Took a break from holiday-related family stuff to see this one today, and I enjoyed it.

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical based on the Oscar-winning Fellini classic , the pedigree of the source material of Nine give Rob Marshall’s big screen incarnation large shoes to fill. But to hold this latest rendition up to the lofty standards of its predecessors is unfair and unwise. Marshall’s Nine is best enjoyed as a stand-alone piece of popular entertainment. It’s a sparkly and visually splendid production that drowns the subtlety of its source material in glitz, and lags between its slickly staged musical numbers.

As he did in his outstanding feature debut Chicago, Marshall treats the musical sequences as portals into the mind of our primary character, defining a separation between realism and fantasy for the sake of those who are averse to the oft-maligned genre of the musical. While this novel approach worked well for Chicago, it doesn’t have quite the same effect in Nine. One notable problem is his over-reliance on a single set for the musical numbers. An impressive set though it is (credit to production designer John Myhre), it gives the film that unwelcome “stagey” feeling that Marshall had eluded so well with Chicago, and seems to indicate a slight lack of imagination. The songs themselves, originally written for the stage by Maury Yeston, were never designed to be particularly catchy or memorable, but to help define and reinforce characters through their lyrics, and not all of them are a perfect fit for Marshall’s frenetic editing style. The producers had Yeston pen a couple of new tunes to help rectify that, but it is only half successful. “Take It All” presents one of the film’s best and most emotive moments, while “Cinema Italiano” is hyper, bluntly-worded, and sticks out like a sore thumb in Yeston’s otherwise fine score.

Much has been made of the A-list cast, which we knew would be up for the SAG ensemble award before shooting even began. As struggling film-maker Guido Contini, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a surprisingly extroverted and somewhat comic performance given his penchant for highly internalized and subversive character studies. But this film is a character study through music, so I suppose a bit of melodrama is called for. Of the impressive female ensemble, Marion Cotillard is the definite standout as Guido’s long-suffering wife. Her singing is strong and sounds like a natural extension of her acting, a challenging task as any stage performer will tell you. Her scenes are the only ones where true feeling and subtext manage to break through the thick layers of gloss. Penelope Cruz is expectedly sexy as Guido’s mistress, and she has lots of fun performing “A Call from the Vatican”, which has always been the play’s best song. But the full comic potential of her character is not capitalized on. The characters played by Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, and Fergie (who is surprisingly well-cast) seem peripheral at best despite the strength of their performances. Nicole Kidman was an interesting choice as an actress whose star power outshines her talent, and Kidman’s brief performance is best appreciated for her slight self-referential mockery.

As I said, it’s not fair to criticize this movie too heavily for its stunted substance, but to just enjoy it for its dazzling production. John Myhre’s sets are terrific, Colleen Atwood’s costumes are the biggest highlight, and Dion Beebe’s cinematography is exquisitely lit. The work of these people rank among the year’s best, and I would be unsurprised to see them all walk away with Oscars in February.

As for other nominations, Picture, Film Editing, Original Song, Sound Mixing, and Supporting Actress are reasonable, but for which actress? Will Harvey Weinstein’s greedy Lead campaign for Marion Cotillard ruin her chance of a nomination in the Supporting category where she belongs, or will the Academy ignore him (like they did last year) at the expense of favourite Penelope Cruz?

**1/2 out of ****

1 comment:

Michael Stypulkoski said...

I have to disagree with your criticism of the use of a single stage for the musical numbers. I think that the decision to have each song performed in the same space helped to "ground" the performances and forced them to stand on their own merits. Each of the women play a certain role in Guido's life. By presenting them all on a "neutral field" so to speak and removing any outside factors, we are allowed to weigh each one independently and draw our own conclusions. It's a bit like going to a museum and seeing works of art hanging on plain, boring, sterilized white walls, thereby allowing us to focus on the substance of the artwork, rather than the style in which it is presented.

I was a bit surprised that you pegged this film for a Best Picture nod. I'm assuming you were just guessing it would happen, not saying that it deserved it?