Friday, December 25, 2009

Feels Like Nine Hours

Grade: D

It's rare to find a movie with such a high profile and so much talent behind it that manages to fuck so much up that it leaves you feeling embarrassed for everyone involved. This season, that movie is Nine. In every way you can imagine, Nine takes the worst path from stage to screen, managing to simultaneously feel stagy, lifeless, dull, cold, and neverending. If you wanted to kill the movie musical genre, this is a pretty good way to do so.

There's so much wrong with Nine that I don't really know where to start, but it's got to be with the musical numbers. Director Rob Marshall decided to follow up his success with Chicago by utilizing the same method in filming Nine's musical numbers. Namely, instead of having the actors sing to each other within the scene, they magically appear onstage as part of a fantasy sequence. Doing an actual musical where people break into song might throw some people off, so better to have it all in their heads.

The first mistake with this line of reasoning: Nine is not Chicago. Chicago was a musical about theater and performance, so it was natural that people accustomed to spending time onstage would appear onstage in their innermost thoughts. But Nine has NOTHING to do with theater. Based on Fellini's classic 8 1/2, it's the story of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), Italy's most famous movie director who, after a few flops, finds himself with writer's block ten days before his next film is set to go into production. As he struggles to start page 1, he's pulled in different directions by his wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), star (Nicole Kidman), producer, costume designer (Judi Dench), mother (Sofia Lauren), and an American fashion journalist who seems to have stepped into this movie by accident (Kate Hudson, and a lot more on her later).

See, it's a movie ABOUT movies, so you might expect some love for cinematic history, maybe some visual references to Fellini, or even some demonstration of the advantages that film has over theater. None of that is there. Because Rob Marshall only knows how to make musicals like Chicago, it's always in theatrical mode. Worse, not only is every musical number on a stage, it's always on the SAME stage, and a highly unappealing one at that. For some unknown reason, everyone only sings inside the indoor studio with Guido's half-built set, and with the lights off. So they're singing on an ugly stage, in the dark, and usually in drab looking costumes. There's no light and no color, leaving the visuals consistently drab and depressing.

I'm still not done with the musical numbers. The decision to show them all onstage doesn't just look bad, it also lessens the dramatic effect. Marshall seems so terrified that people will get bored during the songs that he does everything he can to make you forget there are people singing. That means wild and frantic choreography that's completely out of tone with everything in the movie (also crude and unsexy). That means songs are constantly interrupted by spoken dialogue from another scene. And that means you're encouraged to do everything but listen to the lyrics.

This is especially problematic when half the songs involve characters sharing their feelings. It would make more sense for them to just start singing, but Marshall seems so trapped in his gimmick that they still go into fantasy mode even when really saying those things. It creates a disconnect that lessens the impact when say, the movie star's trying to tell Guido she's more than just a symbol (and as Nicole Kidman plays her, she isn't), or when his wife is saying she's leaving him (while stripping in a nightclub. Yeah, I have no idea who thought that would make for a dramatic message).

Now, ok, filming musical numbers is hard. Every movie musical has struggled to find a way to keep them interesting, and Rent provided like five different not to do it. So let's go a little more basic: what can movies do that theater can't? Show the environment. This is a movie set in 1960s Italy that's supposed to actually be about Italy. Yet you see none of it. There's no sense of Italy, and no sense either of the spa at which most of the movie is set. Guido claims he just stopped there after driving for awhile. So is it a nice spa? A crappy one? Is this Guido's vacation, or just a Motel 6? In the original movie and musical, it's clearly a vacation, but this movie never bothers to say. There's a single gorgeous shot over a cliff, but otherwise it's all claustrophobically indoors.

I think I've pretty well established how visually lacking the movie is, so let's move on to story. In both the original movie and play, Guido hides the fact that he doesn't have a script from his crew, letting them continue onward until the pressure builds to a breaking point at which he considers suicide. Fellini's version visualized it perfectly in this enormous spaceship that just gets bigger and bigger as Guido feels more and more trapped. But in this movie, the set is no more complete at the end than the beginning. The crew knows the entire movie that he hasn't written a page of the script, yet seem to think he'll just make it work. And he never seriously tries to write anything. When the movie collapses, everyone seems to just go "oh well, guess we should have seen that coming." There's not that much plot to begin with, and by eliminating the stakes there's none at all.

Which leaves characters. The relationships are the center of the story, and we're really supposed to care when everyone abandons him at the end. But we don't. The movie doesn't develop a single one of the central relationships, so we never understand what any of the women really mean to Guido. You understand what Guido means to his wife, because Marion Cotillard makes you see it, but Guido seems to treat all the women as interchangeable. When the movie star says she can no longer play the role for him, you don't know what she's talking about because it hadn't previously been addressed. The movie, like Guido, takes its relationships for granted, but if you haven't already seen the play you'd be completely lost.

Finally casting, which has some of the only bright spots in the entire movie. Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, and Judi Dench are the only reasons I didn't just give it an F. Marion Cotillard is at least 15 years too young for the part, and her accent seems at least a continent away from the French/Italian it's supposed to be, but she still gives the best performance in the movie. Her songs are the only ones with any emotional resonance, and she's always just so beautiful. That also helps out Penelope Cruz, who also brings most of the movie's energy. And Judi Dench is always great, even if her thoroughly British character suddenly becomes French in order to sing a COMPLETELY pointless song.

Moving to the other end, one of the weakest links in the cast is, rather shockingly, Daniel Day-Lewis, who previously seemed incapable of delivering a bad performance. But he's so incredibly bland and lifeless that you don't for a second believe that any of these beautiful women would be so in love with him. There's absolutely none of the charm displayed by Antonio Banderas on Broadway (why wasn't he cast?) or Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2. Maybe all of his energy went into his accent, but since his vowel elongation made him sound kind of like the Count from Sesame Street, he might have been better off talking like Daniel Plainview.

Still, the award for most incomprehensible character of the year goes to Kate Hudson's Stephanie, an American fashion reporter from Vogue who adds absolutely nothing to the movie. To be clear: I'm not blaming Kate Hudson; the character has absolutely no purpose. I had thought she was an expansion of the critic character (who was definitely missed), but instead she just flirts with Guido in a bar and then sings the worst song I have ever seen put to the screen. I'm not exaggerating. It is laugh out loud terrible. Kate Hudson's made a lot of bad career moves in the decade since she was Penny Lane, but I've never felt so embarrassed for her as I did during that song.

There's so much else that doesn't make sense and doesn't fit together. Everything about Guido's childhood was cut for the movie EXCEPT for his encounter with a prostitute (played by Fergie, who at least does the best singing job), but you never know what the point of the song is because there's nothing else to explain it. And if you tried too hard to think about it, the worst use of Chicago-style choreography yet gives the opposite impression of what the scene is supposed to mean.

The music doesn't match the choreography doesn't match the dialogue doesn't match the visuals doesn't match anything. The relationships don't feel real. There's no dramatic stakes, and there's nothing fun at all. There's even a lengthy epilogue tacked on in which Judi Dench spells out the moral of the movie before an utterly conventional ending and, no joke, a curtain call. But nobody was clapping in my theater. Those that hadn't walked out already rushed to the door the second the credits rolled. So congratulations Nine. You thought you would get Oscar nods this year, but instead you win the first ever Zandervision Award for Worst Movie of the Year.


Stephanie said...

I don't know Zander, I felt like when I saw the play at LHS a lot of these elements were already there. It might just be a problem with the story. The whole thing is just kinda ridiculous and absurd, and if you make it enjoyable at all, that's really a feat in itself.

Zander said...

Nine's definitely not a great show to begin with, but it can be with the right execution. I thought LHS did a good job, and the revival on Broadway was amazing. But this movie made the wrong choice every single time. Not only was there a weak central performance, bad choreography, and drab visuals, but it had the additional misfortune of completely bungling the stage-to-screen transition. Plus decisions about what to cut and what to keep lost a lot of story logic while adding a terrible song. And no matter what, a big movie filled to the brim with Oscar winners should not be significantly worse than a high school production.