Monday, January 04, 2010

Nine gets a 2

By Tony Buchsbaum

I'm reminded of a recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. I gave it to a friend who loved the cookies. Then she used white chocolate chips instead—and they weren't as good.

Somewhere along the way, between its briliant original Broadway staging and the recent film, the recipe for the musical Nine was similarly screwed up. And I can't imagine how it could have happened.

Nine is about movies. Its love of them, the making of them, the way filmmakers pull from their pasts to create vital images in the present. It's about how all those images intertwine, again like some elaborate recipe, and get pulled through the prism of script, acting, and cinematography, to emerge as something even greater than the recipe could have predicted. Yet despite its subject matter, Nine somehow gets it wrong.

The 1982 musical, which starred Raul Julia as Guido Contini, was a marvelous look at filmmaking. Based on Federico Fellini's landmark film 8-1/2, it exploded that story and brought a poignancy and a simplicity that the film didn't have. Now, all these years later, director Rob Marshall has made a film of Nine that unfortunately recrafts the musical so that it harkens back to the original Fellini instead of doing justice to his source material. To me, if Marshall had wanted to remake 8-1/2, that might have been a interesting film. But he chose to make Nine—and ruined it.

Many of the songs from the musical have been cut, and while one might argue that they didn't propel the plot, someone else could argue that they gave the material depth. Then again, three songs have been added, none of which propel the plot any more than the orignal songs did. Instead, they add more of the same.

What's happened is that Marshall has made a movie of Cats, with all the trappings of Nine. Instead of creating a deep, meaningful musical about how one blocked filmmaker works, he's created a parade of the women in that filmmaker's life, and the result is like Cats, with so many felines telling individual stories as they compete for the prize (whatever that might be). I might also say that this Nine is like A Chorus Line, but not in a good way. A Chorus Line is meant to be about each character telling his or her story, and the irony is that they end up anything but individuals, in a chorus line at the end where they're virtually photocopies of one another.

Nine should never have been like either of these. What RobMarshall has done is to strip the story of its real resonance. He's re-created Guido Contini as a self-centered, unfeeling cad, and how any woman could lust after him is beyond me. Daniel Day-Lewis plays him with honesty and a fierce sense of purpose, but there's nothing, really, to play. On film, he's a conflicted, self-indulgent artist, but on the stage he was a conflicted artist who, fearful of losing his wife/anchor, realized how to use his past to create the film he longed to make, one informed by his past but that doesn't simply pilfer it.

On film, Nine's conceit doesn't make much sense. It doesn't allow the characters to genuinely interact, and this robs them of the chance to act, as well. The climax, which has seen a fundamental change from the original, is left banal, trite, boring. On stage, the young Guido (who's nine years old) sings a simple song, "Getting Tall," and equates some of a boy's life lessons with a man's: tying shoes, scraping knees, and such are the same, in a way, as what Guido must learn, that in trying to have them all (all the women he loves), he may very well end up with no one, not even the one he professes to love most, his wife Luisa. Instead, the film ditches this essential song is favor of a two-year flashforward that has Guido realizing he can win her back by filming their past. Interesting? No. (a) We've seen it so many times before, and (b) we know that Luisa already despises Guido for doing just that in an earlier scene. Was anyone paying attention?

What's so frustrating about Nine is that the potential was already there. The material was already rich, and the filmmakers— the late great Anthony Mingella and Marshall—either ignored it or decided it was beneath their vision of the film. I wonder hwo much blame can also be laid at the feet of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, who created the musical and were involved in the film. Didn't they sense their legs being pulled out from under them?

I could go on. but the damage has been done. Nine was a film I have looked forward to for years. When I heard that Marshall was making it, I thought it was in good hands, perfect hands. I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead of rethinking what Nine might be, I wish he had considered what Nine already was.

P.S. The CD? That's why we're here, after all. It features Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Fergie, Sophia Loren, and Nicole Kidman singing their songs. Day-Lewis does a sort of half-singing, half-speaking thing, much like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and it works. Kidman can't sing and shouldn't have tried; in an interview she all but confessed that she herself didn't really go for her performance. Loren does the Rex Harrison thing but not as well as Day-Lewis. Fergie's brilliant take on one of the show's signature songs, "Be Italian," is a showstopper. Hudson's take on one of the new songs, "Cinema Italiano," is great fun. Her character and the song were both added—and shouldn't have been—but I still like both, especially the song's snappy remix by Ron Fair (next to the remix, the version used in the film is dull). All in all, the CD's not a bad buy, but you'd probably do better doing some selective song-downloading instead.

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