“Nine” is a savvy piece of musical filmmaking. Sophisticated, sexy and stylishly decked out, Rob Marshall’s disciplined, tightly focused film impresses and amuses as it extravagantly renders the creative crisis of a middle-aged Italian director, circa 1965. Given its basis in a 27-year-old Broadway show, which itself had its unlikely origins in Federico Fellini’s self-reflective 1963 classic “8½,” the Stateside Weinstein release will probably find a more receptive audience among culture vultures than with the masses. But a robust marketing push stressing the stellar cast, strong notices and the “another ‘Chicago’ ” vibe should still generate solid returns, especially in urban areas.
Although the original 1982 production, with a book by Arthur L. Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and Raul Julia in the leading role, won five Tony Awards and ran for 729 performances, many theater mavens preferred the 2003 revival and its star, Antonio Banderas.
But given its heritage and the profession of the central character, the musical has found its proper place on the bigscreen, along with a cast that could scarcely be bettered. Not only can they act, but Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson and Sophia Loren can sing. Why didn’t anyone know? As one, the cast would undoubtedly respond, “Because no one ever asked.”
First big scene at Rome’s Cinecitta Film Studios allows the film to establish its stylized method at the outset, as the many women in the life of dashing cinema genius Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) musically make their way onto an unfinished set on giant stage five as he faces the imminent start of a movie he hasn’t begun to write. Called “maestro” far too often for his own good, Guido is the sun around which swirl innumerable lovers, loyal workers, acolytes and hangers-on, all whom vie for his time and attention while peppering him with questions about the new picture.
Instead of making Guido entirely self-absorbed and self-serious, Day-Lewis at once places the viewer firmly in the palm of his hand and then in his pocket by emphasizing the character’s humorous awareness of his position in life. He puts on a grand show at a press conference, although one journalist, noting that Guido’s last two films flopped, pierces the armor of jokiness by asking, “Have you run out of things to say?” At this, the director retreats to a seaside resort to recharge and tells his loyal wife, Luisa (Cotillard), to stay home, only to receive his lusty mistress, Carla (Cruz), who proceeds to steam up the place with her number, “A Call From the Vatican.”
Except for Luisa, who has two, the women define their roles in Guido’s life by through single songs, which are uniformly arresting in their own right, even if they finally reveal themselves to be mostly straightforward “statement” songs with a similar nature in the Weill-via-Kander-and-Ebb mold. After Carla’s declaration of the hots for Guido come “Folies Bergere,” a celebration of dreams and sensual bewitchment from Lilli (Dench), Guido’s old costume designer and confidante; “Be Italian,” rousingly belted out by Fergie, playing a beachside prostitute of Guido’s boyhood; “My Husband Makes Movies,” Luisa’s moving lament that her husband’s profession takes precedence over her; “Cinema Italiano,” a celebration of the Italy depicted in Guido’s movies sung by flirty journalist Stephanie (Hudson); the reassuring mother-to-son lullaby “Guarda la luna” sung by Loren; “Unusual Way,” an acute admission by Guido’s muse and frequent lead actress, Claudia (Kidman), of the strange hold he has on her; and the new “Take It All,” in which Luisa brutally reminds her husband of the sexy woman he is losing.
Some other songs from the show have been adapted or dropped, and bracketing the women’s numbers are two from Guido, the egocentric “Guido’s Song” and his throwing in of the towel, “I Can’t Make This Movie”; “Find another genius,” he petulantly challenges those who would listen.
Cutting between black-and-white and color in the musical numbers and, like Fellini’s film, constantly on the move as Guido is buffeted about with scarcely a moment to breathe, much less write a script, “Nine” takes the the matter of directile dysfunction seriously without being pretentious about it. With the distance of 45 years, the glory days of Italian filmmaking are depicted more for their chaotic fun than for their grave chic or philosophical import, and the double delight for the cast to be working in both a musical and a picture set in such a fabled era (one known personally among the cast members only by Loren) plainly shows in their spirited performances.
The script sets the course in these matters as well as others, notably in finding a way to honor “8½” while enabling one to put it to the side of one’s mind, and in illuminating Guido’s folly while still taking seriously his relationships with women. It was not for nothing that the writers engaged were Michael Tolkin, author of “The Player,” and Anthony Minghella, whose “The Talented Mr. Ripley” so evocatively captured the Rome of just a few years before.
Working again with his resourceful lenser Dion Beebe, Marshall shoots in a nimble style that keeps the film alive all the way; editing by Claire Simpson and Wyatt Smith is fast but not frantic.