Let me start by saying, I'm sure everyone assumes I have an emotional attachment to the material. Which is true, but not in the way you'd think. I didn't actually meet my wife until almost a year after the show closed; she wasn't even in it when I saw it near the end of its run. (I did, of course, see her perform Be Italian on the Tonys) I've come to know many people connected with the show in the years since, and of course have personal feelings about them/it, but it's not as if I lived through the whole experience of the show (they way I did with Grand Hotel).
My real attachment is, I loved this show on stage. I thought it one of the best musicals of the post-Sondheim era -- a vivid, grown-up, surprisingly fresh experience. Surprising because, though it obviously cribbed characters and situation from the Fellini classic, it struck out well on its own -- recalling the film, visually/thematically, far less directly than such other knockoffs as All That Jazz or Stardust Memories. This was largely due to Tommy Tune, one of the last remaining conceptualizers of the musical stage. His decision to cast only women in support of Raul Julia, his clothing them all in black on an all-white set, his use of the stage as the inside of Guido's head...all created a new work of art that existed alongside Fellini's but didn't simply try to coast by mining its best qualities. And, unlike Damien (and other critics), I think it's a wonderful score...far more melodic than pretty much any musical of recent vintage. Granted, a good many of my favorite tunes didn't survive into this version – Simple, Nine, Getting Tall, and Be On Your Own (whoever thought removing that for Take It All has a rock for a brain) – but even just Guido's Song, My Husband Makes Movies, Be Italian and In a Very Unusual Way strike me as a cut way above Broadway average.
Despite all this affection, I doubted the film's prospects. Concept musicals have been notoriously difficulty to film; two that succeeded -- Cabaret and Chicago -- did so primarily by concentrating on their theatre settings (literal, in Cabaret's case; for Chicago, in the characters' ambitious minds). The idea here seems to be to try and do the same with a film's sound-stage, but 1) the sound-stage is a different animal – not having an applauding audience, among other things and 2) much of the action of Nine takes place in realistic settings (as opposed to the cartoony universe of Chicago), and the shift doesn't fly.
I will say I did like the opening sequence of Nine –a sort of illustrated overture, with some lovely movement – and I liked the closing tableau. I'd have been interested in seeing a film that stayed within those parameters throughout the running time. But Marshall failed at this, and failed in a way I hadn't anticipated. I'd worried – when I saw it was being set in real-time early 60s Italy – that the film would too much resemble 8 ½, a comparison where Marshall was bound to come off a distant second. Instead, the film resembled a more realistic Italian film of the era (or, maybe just Stardust Memories), which I view as a fatal error. It struck me watching that, this material has a framework that thrived in two media because of the strength of its directorial vision, not its content. If you reduce the story to realistic bare bones, it becomes the tale of an artist who coldly uses people and a husband who's massively unfaithful to his wive – a double-wheeze; The Bad and the Beautiful al Italia. Without a director who can command stage or screen via dazzling technique, this material just sits there, with only the musical numbers to relieve the tedium.
Anthony Minhgella is a logical person to blame for this, given his screenplay credit, but I'd be more inclined to blame the person who hired him – namely, Harvey Weinstein. Minghella is clearly a classicist; he doesn't have a surrealist bone in his body. You don't hire him for material that needs a vivid spin to stay afloat. And, come to think of it, this isn't the only flaw in the project that can be traced back to Weinstein. He brought on board Day-Lewis, Dench and Kidman (all veterans of his Miramax days), none of whom are are irreplaceable, and some of whom actively sabotage the project (more on that just ahead). Harvey has long been known as a buttiniski, and maybe some of his early instincts were canny. But here I think he's moved on the late-Selznick megalomania, and has hurt his own film by, in the name of packaging, saddling the project with parts that don't fit.
As to those actors:
Day-Lewis succeeds with the accent, but not in making you feel he's Italian to his bones. And Damien is quite right here, that charm is missing entirely. My wife is fiercely devoted to Raul Julia, and she noted last night that when Raul played the moment Day-Lewis had in the film of hiding behind the plant, it was impish and charming; Day-Lewis seemed dead inside. And he clearly can't sing. This wasn't such a handicap in Guido's Song, but in I Can't Make This Movie, his failure to engage the melody prevented the moment from soaring to the emotion that his physical actions were communicating. Antonio Banderas in the revival was far more effective.
Penelope Cruz was fine enough in the dialogue scenes, but I thought A Call From the Vatican fell entirely flat. My wife has seen numerous actresses perform the song, and Anita Morris is the only one she truly loved. As she says, the problem is, if the number doesn't strike just the right kittenish note, it falls into lewdness and just feels unpleasant. Which I think is the effect here.
Cotillard is, for me, the best in show. Her voice wasn't quite up to the early notes of My Husband Makes Movies, but she took command midway though the number. And her quality throughout – perched between naivete and wishing for the best/expecting the worst – felt just right and heartbreaking. She also looked beautiful.
Judi Dench was fine in her dialogue scenes, but her character's place in the narrative is uncharted – the part appears to have been created to get Dench into the movie. And the contortions required to lead into Folies Bergere were laughable (they reminded me of an old game show Keep Talking, where people had to work certain phrases into a running story, and you watched their gyrations trying to steer the story back to where their line made sense). As for the number itself...well, the only Folies Bergere anyone here seems to have seen is the Vegas version. And Dench of course can't dance, which makes the whole thing pointless. You'd never guess, but Liliane Montevecchi made this a wonderful moment onstage.
Kate Hudson is grisly bad. Another pointless character, with a bad new song. And when she dances what looks like the Pony, she resembles her mother in Laugh-In days, only with a heavier face.
Nicole Kidman is actually good enough, but I don't know why Marshall felt the need to bifurcate her number, so it feels like she's singing a duet with herself. In fact, overall it feels like Marshall is continually trying to have too much happen. I remember when I was a kid and my parents brought home the playbill from Hello, Dolly! Every number seemed to read "Dolly and Ensemble"; "Cornelius, Barnaby and Ensemble" -- and I remember thinking, doesn't anyone in this show sing a solo or duet? The same applies here -- even with a number like Be Italian, which worked well enough on the beach or on the sound-stage, but which was vitiated by splitting its focus between the two. (Fergie sings it quite well, though, as my wife is happy to acknowledge)
My opinion of the film isn't much higher than anyone else's here, but maybe my tone is a bit different. I see this as not the standard Hollywood failure, which risks too little, but rather as the ambitious project that tries, if anything, way too hard. There were moments during the film that I thought, hey, that scene worked -- but then it was often negated by the scene that followed, simply because it was off in another realm. This film needed a strong hand -- a hand other than Weinstein's -- but an excess of artistic imagination ended up making as disappointing a film as one that didn't try to begin with.