Adaptation's Adaptation: Fellini, It Certainly Is Not

'Nine' ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 Stars)

December 25, 2009|By Michael Phillips | Michael Phillips,Tribune Newspapers critic

Eight and a half reasons "Nine" is a mixed bag:

One:: It's underweight. Based on Fellini's exhilarating "8 1/2," "Nine" contains a fraction of the story material even a simple show such as "Chicago" handed its cinematic adapters. On Broadway, with Raul Julia starring in the original, beautiful Tommy Tune staging, "Nine" moved so fluidly you didn't notice what wasn't there. Same with the starring Antonio Banderas.

Two:: The movie is shot and edited like a two-hour trailer for itself. As such, it's not hard to take, but you do tend to wonder when the film itself is going to start.

Three:: The director's promise is in a deadlock with the director's limitations. Rob Marshall comes from Broadway; he was a "Cats" chorus feline once and went on to exemplary work as Sam Mendes' co-director on the recent "Cabaret" revival. Marshall's feature directorial debut, "Chicago," won Oscars and made piles and was, in fact, pretty sharp.

For better or worse Marshall has conceived his edition of "Nine" in almost precisely the same way he approached "Chicago." Each number is imagined by its protagonist, in this case the illustrious film director in crisis, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis). The movie illustrates scenes from Contini's tangled relationships with his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his favorite star and muse (Nicole Kidman), his longtime costumer and conscience (Judi Dench) and, in flashbacks, his mother (Sophia Loren).

Four:: Marshall confines much of this cinematic adaptation to a single soundstage, so that Contini, in effect, is staging the numbers as he might film them. Problem is ...

... Five:: Marshall's signature camera move. With the featured vocalist in medium shot, Marshall laterals the camera in an indistinct tracking shot, slowly, which does little to heighten or activate what we're seeing. See Vincente Minnelli for inspiration.

On the other hand ...

... Six:: I'm weirdly hooked on one of songwriter Maury Yeston's newly composed numbers, "Cinema Italiano," delivered a-go-go by Kate Hudson as a journalist. It's kicky enough to make you forgive a lyric that refers to the Fellini-esque director's style as "neorealism." (Wrong director.)

Seven: : Daniel Day-Lewis. Tremendous, versatile, galvanic actor. Fair singer, though in the film he hardly sings, and what he does sing is on the dull side.

Eight:: The women. This has always been a show about the girls, and how they torment, tantalize, judge and revere the suffering mama's boy. The best way to approach "Nine" is as a fashion spread rather than an actual story.

Eight and a half:: It's a good deal better than the film version of the Broadway musical version of "The Producers."

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and smoking).

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Guido Contini); Marion Cotillard (Luisa); Penelope Cruz (Carla); Judi Dench (Lilli); Fergie (Saraghina); Kate Hudson (Stephanie); Nicole Kidman (Claudia); Sophia Loren (Mamma)

Credits: Directed by: Rob Marshall; written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, based on the Broadway musical, book by Arthur Kopit, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti; produced by Marc Platt, Harvey Weinstein, John DeLuca and Rob Marshall. A Weinstein Company release. Running time: 1:58.

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