Sunday, January 3, 2010
No genre better reflects the status of Hollywood itself as the musical: in the prosperous postwar years, musicals were triumphant, joyous and effervescent; in the '70s -- with New York, New York and, to an extent, Nashville -- they reflected the cynicism and the genre revisionism of New Hollywood; Dancer in the Dark, admittedly not a Hollywood picture (not to mention morally repugnant), nevertheless demonstrated the bold experimentation of the '99-'00 mini-era. Now, they're vacuous and desperate, pumped full of star power and a fine coat of glitter to make a quick buck the first weekend before all attention immediately dissipates.
Rob Marshall proves this once with Nine, based on Arthur Kopit's book for Maury Yeston's stage musical based on Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece 8½, possibly one of the ten greatest films ever made. In theory, Rob Marshall's adaptation of the musical might have been perfectly fitting for Fellini: 8½ is inexorably tied to the cinema, and live theater informs Nine. The act of returning it to the silver screen might have resulted in such an overflow of meta that Fellini might have risen from the grave. But Marshall's adaptation is limp and flaccid, which may be the point given its protagonist's artistic -- and, as more and more of the women around him express disappointment, potentially sexual -- impotence, though such an interpretation would require me to make excuses for a film that doesn't have any.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who once apprenticed under an Italian shoemaker, plays Guido, still a Fellini stand-in after his transplant to the stage and back again. He's a director of renown, beloved by seemingly all of Italy, albeit only for his "early films, not the flops." I'd somehow hoped against hope that Inglourious Basterds might have put the kibosh on English actors speaking English with accents to portray foreign characters, but Nine is a buffet of excruciatingly bad approximations of Italian (well, except for Judi Dench as Guido's costume designer/confidante Lilli La Fleur, who simply speaks in her British accent as if it is close enough to French). Day-Lewis, the man who so dedicated himself to his craft that he remained in a wheelchair at all times during the filming of My Left Foot, puts forth no effort beyond adopting a basic Italian accent and smoking a great deal.
It might not have been the end of the world, though: 8½ was Fellini's way of excoriating his demons, creative and sexual, allowing him to play out his fantasies, hangups and writer's block through Guido. Nine, conversely, is about the women who inform those fantasies, from Guido's mother (he is a Catholic, after all) to his wife to his mistress to a reporter to...Jesus how does this guy even have the imagination to spare for art? Unfortunately, Nine is based on the same reductive types that Fellini used back in '63 that were already dated but at least a part of his attempt to reconcile and overcome his lusts; Guido often stands by silhouetted in the showtunes as the women sing of their disappointment with the director, trapping the women in some nebulous nether-zone that confines them to Guido's perception of them and their drive to be independent creatures commenting upon Guido's failures.
Thus, the cast, packed with Oscar-winners looking to prove they can sing and dance, has nothing to do: Day-Lewis serves only to move the plot in the libretto, taking him from female to female to set off each musical number before simply moving on without taking stock of the ideas and comments brought up in the songs. Nicole Kidman, playing Guido's muse, appears in only one scene after the breathless reverence of admirers build a legend around her, and her graceless movements tear down that vague mythos just as you're starting to believe it; her awkward movements make for an uncomfortably hilarious moment when Guido and the producers watch screen tests and fawn over her beauty later. More distressing is Kate Hudson, once again doing her best to chip away at that pedestal I placed her on after Almost Famous; she plays an American Italophile who idolizes Guido's films for bringing the Italian fashion to the world but, as with the film itself, has no clue what that fashion really is. The notes I take in the theater are by necessity brief and jumbled, what with the challenge of jotting down notes while other events are happening (not to mention it's quite dark in there, you know), and occasionally one amuses me enough to share without expanding upon it. My chief note for Hudson reads: "Too much makeup. Too much scary." Marion Cotillard, who has the most convincing accent as she's French and plays a French-Italian, has the only role of any substance as Guido's wife, once a rising actress who ceased working when she married -- a priest calls her a "good Catholic wife," the closest the film comes to exploring the Catholic foundation of Fellini's original. She has the only interesting line in the entire film when the same priest giddily exclaims "You're Luisa del Forno!" and she fatalistically responds, "I was."
The actors might not be at fault here, as Nine is, judging from the songs and storyline presented to us, a mediocre musical. Yes, it won Tonys in its original run and its revival, but there isn't a single good song. Its first tune doesn't even have words, caught between an instrumental overture and the endless "la-la-la" chanting of the sea of women Guido imagines. An entire song is dedicated to the Folies Bergère (featuring Dench singing suddenly, hysterically in a French accent after using her English voice everywhere else), a French music hall that came to prominence in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as an exotic revue and unlikely landmark of the négritude movement (the French equivalent of the Harlem Renaissance), notably launching the career of, among others, Joséphine Baker. Its history is genuinely interesting, but not to audiences who likely haven't heard of it before listening to a song that does not describe the Folies Bergère in any detail, whose lyrics consist mostly of repeating the name of the establishment at a frantic pace without even making clear that it is, in fact, a place. "Be Italian," the song that comes closest to making your toe tap, concerns Saraghina, the prostitute Guido and his friends paid as a child to dance for them. Fergie, as Saraghina, fails utterly to match the perverse eroticism of the same moment in 8½: she's not grotesque enough to show the depths of Guido's depravity, nor is she remotely as seductive as Eddra Gale's original -- Fergie's idea of a seduction is the same pose people strike on Myspace too look attractive, which is incidentally the same as the Stanley Kubrick Evil Madman Pose: head titled down with eyes remaining parallel to the ground and staring fiercely. Marshall inept direction only makes everything worse, moving for close-ups when musicals should remain in long shot. If the musical truly is the measuring device for Hollywood's artistic mindset, then Marshall's invasive camera reflects the half-assed attempt to personalize everything without ever making films that are truly personal, and its frantic editing evidence of the current fad of desperately attempting to outrun the smell of the crap being made.
Nine's incessant monotony exposes a deep flaw in the genre: musicals these days are all flash but no magic; the old musicals were big and boisterous too, but they could absolutely overwhelm your senses with quality where now it's just more, more, more. Find me one moment in Nine, or Chicago or Moulin Rouge!, as jaw-droppingly choreographed as Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" workout in Singin' in the Rain or Bob Fosse and Tommy Rail's playful "duel" in My Sister Eileen. Find me a song as catchy as "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." Find me a moment as perfect as the finale of Rain, in which Debbie Reynolds is revealed to be the true talent, a moment so splendid and majestic that every frame burns with such white-hot passion that the celluloid threatens to explode. I'll take the three-strip purity of Rain over these hollow, polychromatic displays any day of the week*.
I considered revisiting 8½ before watching Nine, more because it's been so long since I've seen it that I've forgotten details than as a base of comparison; sadly, I hocked my Criterion copy in preparation for their upcoming Blu-Ray re-release. It's just as well: even if I wouldn't have watched it to judge Nine by how it stacked up to Fellini's masterpiece, the act of watching such a perfect dreamscape would have only made the boring nightmare of this experience all the more unbearable. Rarely has such a great cast been so viciously squandered, and Nine never amounts to anything more than a bunch of film stars trying to make themselves into triple threats, which is somewhat true, as they take roles that might have been occupied by those who truly can sing and dance and might have breathed some life into this turgid musical.
Why then, am I giving this film two stars? Because one person actually works: Penélope Cruz. I've long undersold Cruz as an actress, but I'm running out of tangible excuses. How many more films does she have to steal -- Vicky Christina Barcelona, her fantastic collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar, Elegy -- before I shut my fat mouth? Here, she plays Guido's mistress, a bundle of pure sex in a film that is trying to be just that and fails everywhere else. She walks away from a film featuring Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard and Sophia Loren as if they were nonprofessionals (even though she doesn't do much acting and can't anyway, not with a role as horribly written as Carla), and her tongue-numbing, knee-weakening dance near the start will make you praise the Lord for making Spain. Even when she has to deliver some cringe-inducing bits of dialogue like, "I'll be waiting for you...with my legs open," she is tantalizing and maddening and tragic and awe-inspiring. Dios te bendiga, Penélope.
*That's not to say that I'm judging this film against Singin' in the Rain. This film has enough problems without comparing it to the zenith of the genre.