As this decade comes to a close it is interesting to look back upon some of the more significant developments that have occurred inside the film industry. Over the past few years we have experienced the rise of the Apatow comedy, the superhero film genre has infested the marketplace, and the musical regained its commercial footing, starting in 2001 with Baz Lurhman’s brash Moulin Rouge!
The musical was not fully re-embraced however as a viable financial product or potential awards magnet by the studio fat-cats of Hollyweird until an unproven director named Rob Marshall made a little film called Chicago. Not only did Chicago make tons of cash, it delivered the ol’ razzle-dazzle on the awards circuit, taking home multiple awards including the coveted Best Picture prize. This appeared to open the floodgates and throughout the past ten years we have been treated to a whole host of adaptations of lavish Broadway products. The quality and style of these films have been exceptionally diverse, ranging from Tim Burton’s freaky Sweeney Todd, to Adam Shankman’s silly and candy-coated Hairspray, and finally Joel Schumacher’s abysmal Phantom of the Opera.
The final studio produced musical of the 2000’s is the film Nine, which is based on Federico Fellini’s classic 1963 film. Attempting to close out the decade on a musical high note the suits have again turned to Rob Marshall, the man who helped save the musical genre. The results are catastrophic. Everything that the film attempts to achieve falls flat. The songs are stinkers. The dramatic conflict feels stunted. And the talented cast (whose Oscars, if combined, could probably sink a small battleship) portray characters which are often times underused, underdeveloped, or even completely unnecessary.
Daniel Day-Lewis, flying high after his electrifying performance as Daniel Plainview, crashes back to Earth here. The much-admired thespian plays Gudio Contini, a famous film director who finds himself faced with a multitude of personal and professional problems. Gudio has lost his inspiration and is struggling to find a suitable story for his next film production. There is also the issue of the many influential women who are present in his life. The film covers not only his long-suffering wife and his mistress, but his costume designer, his muse, a random and adoring American reporter, and his dead mother. Even a mysterious prostitute from his childhood, played spectacularly by the one and only Fergie, makes an appearance.
One of the most vivid problems with the film is that with such a large cast we never get a sense of who these women are and just what their inclusion in the film really means. Some of the characters are just blatantly unnecessary – the worst being Kate Hudson who meets Gudio for two short moments in the film. Her character has nothing to do with any of the thematic issues that this film would hopefully explore. If there had been a shrewder editor at work her scenes could have been easily snipped out without the film losing an ounce of effectiveness. This problem is not really a fault of the actresses; in fact all of the performers are acceptable in their respective roles. The blame should be placed wholeheartedly on the shoulders of the director and other creative forces working behind the camera. The film crawls along at a near snail’s pace. After all of the main women are introduced and allowed to sing their seemingly obligatory musical number it is time for the not so grand finale, wrap-up, and curtain call.
A film like this might have been saved if the music wasn’t so utterly boring and forgettable. Ironically, the only song that interjects some much-needed life into such a rotten corpse of a movie is performed by the only non-actor and Oscar-less member of the cast. Fergie’s startling performance of “Be Italian” is definitely one of the film’s few highlights. Well-written, well-choreographed and powerfully sung it helps to give the film a rare moment of beauty, excitement and life. This does not hide the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to apply the lyrics of this or any other song to the actual story and conflicts that the film explores. Marshall fails to make the music and the non-singing segments of the story really flow together as one cohesive whole.
It is not as though the film does not contain some moments of actual heart. Marion Cotillard does a fine job as Gudio’s compassionate and hopeful wife, who is aware of her husband’s many transgressions, but continues to pine for the romance and freshness of their earlier days as a couple. Penelope Cruz is also effective and spectacularly sexy as a woman who also finds herself caught up in Gudio’s somewhat brutish and indecisive behavior. This is the main emotional conflict of the film but it is not given time to grow into something truly significant. It’s too bad the director wasn’t brave enough to perhaps sweep the rest of the cast out the window and just make a movie about how these two women affected Gudio’s life and art. You would hope that with the presence of such seasoned and talented female performers you would have a film that actually cares about presenting women as real people, instead of mere accessories to the struggles of the male lead. Sadly, with Nine this proves to be not the case.
Technically, the film is extremely well shot. The costumes, lighting, and cinematography are all startlingly beautiful. We are starting to see a trend with the short and somewhat messy career of Mr. Marshall. In the post-Chicago era he has seemingly become a master of staging visually striking, yet emotionally and thematically vapid pieces of cinematic art. This was most clearly evident in his loathsome adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. In Nine, we get another round of Marshall’s beautiful yet boring pieces of spectacle. There is not an interesting portrait of a suffering artist’s creative process, nor does the film offer a well-rounded depiction of the unsteady relationship between an artist’s public and personal life. What we do get is two hours of character introduction and song lyrics that are the very definition of redundant Not even Day-Lewis, with all of his cigarette smoking and sunglass twirling is able to help elevate material that was doomed from the start.
It is almost fitting that a film such as Nine closes out the 2000’s, a decade of seemingly endless doom and gloom. With an era marked by a cinematic onslaught of turgid, grim, and disappointing developments it should be no surprise to anyone that a film could be so poorly executed it could blot out an entire cinematic genre. However, this is exactly what Nine accomplishes. And as we say goodbye to the first decade of the new millennium we can say hello to something else. It is the death of the movie musical, by the very same man who helped save it.