Director Rob Marshall did the near impossible with 2002's Chicago: He turned a beloved and successful Broadway musical into a hit Oscar-winning movie that was actually fun to watch. He got rousing performances out of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah. And most of all, he made a stuffy and somewhat creaky play cool and sexy.
After a 2005 detour with the stiff Memoirs of a Geisha, Marshall returns to Broadway for Nine, a 1982 musical based on filmmaker Federico Fellini's mostly autobiographical tour de force, 8½. And like he did in Chicago, Marshall pulls engaging roles out of actors — including Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson — not exactly known for their musical skills.
In 1965 Rome, "maestro" Guido Contini (Day-Lewis with an Italian accent) is struggling to get his latest movie started. The press is hounding him, his producer is itching to begin filming and his star (Kidman) won't show up until she sees a script, which Guido — Fellini, for all intents and purposes — hasn't written yet. Coming off a string of flops, he's sick, tired and stressed-out. So he anonymously checks in to a secluded hotel for rest.
But soon the press, the paparazzi, his producer, his wife (Marion Cotillard) and his mother (Sophia Loren) show up. So do the various women who've paraded through his life. And there are many of them. They're his main inspiration, personally and professionally.
They're also Nine's main inspiration: The movie sizzles during the stylish set pieces featuring half-dressed, gyrating women. The stars throw themselves into the material. Kidman, Cruz (as a mistress), Hudson (a reporter) and Judi Dench (Guido's long-suffering costume designer) don't have great pipes, but their energy during the musical numbers powers the film. Day-Lewis is also good, reining in his usual intensity for a role that's less showy than his last onscreen appearance as the milkshake-drinking Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.
But Nine doesn't have quite the razzle-dazzle of Chicago. Marshall takes a few more chances here, but the story and songs simply aren't as good as Chicago's (let alone 8½). Where Fellini's 1963 classic often drifts into extended bouts of surreality, Nine follows a relatively straightforward narrative based on 8½'s general outline.
Plus, parts of the film just flat-out drag. Still, the heart of the story, Fellini's story, remains one of self-reflection by an artist embracing the two things he loves most: art and women, not necessarily in that order.
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