Tuesday, January 5, 2010

At the Movies: Nine

I went to see Rob Marshall’s film version of the musical Nine during the holidays.  I never saw then stage musical so, unlike his version of Chicago (which I really enjoyed), I can’t compare it to the original.  I’ve never seen the Fellini film on which Nine is based either.

Nine is a lot like the film version of Chicago in that all the musical numbers take place in a character’s imagination and supplement whatever is going on in the “dramatic” portion of the film.    Like in Chicago, the numbers are filmed in a strikingly visual way – they mostly take place on an unfinished movie set.   I’ve always enjoyed Rob Marshall’s choreography and wasn’t disappointed.  He also gets really good performances out of his actors, including actors that you don’t automatically think of as “musical” actors.   They all looked like they were having a ball doing the singing and dancing.  And I think Marshall has a natural eye behind the camera – this is a visually appealing movie. 

But I didn’t like it.

Mostly I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the music.   That isn’t Marshall’s fault of course, he didn’t write the music.   But it is hard to like a musical if you don’t like the music.  I thought the music was boring and found myself drifting away in the middle of musical numbers.  I liked the choreography but thought that Marshall was working hard to keep the audience’s attention from drifting away from the music itself.  

In Chicago the choreography complemented the music and the music, lyrics and choreography worked together to create an overall illusion that we were drawn into.  And despite the fact that Chicago is written as a series of vaudeville style acts, each musical act does advance the plot.   I didn’t really find that the musical “acts” in Nine advanced the plot.  I don’t think they were supposed to; I think they were supposed to give the audience insight into the various characters and insight into how the main character saw the other characters. It is a very psychological story.   But that created a problem, at least for me.

In Nine every time there was a musical number it felt as if the action stopped and the plot was put on hold.   The story revolves around the psychological problems that Daniel Day Lewis’ character (a famous Italian film director) is having in coming up with a movie script. With only a few brief exceptions he is never a part of the musical numbers; they are performed for him or about him – he is passive, either taking them in or not even present for them.   I found myself impatient during them.  

I wonder if part of the problem is that Marshall filmed each musical number as the movie equivalent of a vaudeville number.  The numbers mostly took place on an unfinished movie set played outward to an audience.   To me the musical scene that worked the best was the scene involving Nicole Kidman’s character which cut back and forth between live action dialogue between the characters in narrow Italian streets and the  song which took place in a movie set Italian piazza.  It wasn’t filmed like vaudeville – it was filmed a bit more like an old MGM musical number.   The characters weren’t playing to an audience, they were playing to each other.

But although the music was the key problem I had with the film, I also didn’t like any of the characters.   I’m not sure why that mattered.  I didn’t like any of the characters in Chicago, they were not supposed to be likeable.  But I was fascinated by them.  I wanted to know what they would do next.   In this film, the characters are all … stuck.  I kept waiting for them to do somethingAnything.  But they are all waiting for the main character to do something.  Maybe that’s why Nicole Kidman’s character, Claudia, is refreshing.  Because she takes matters into her own hands.

Daniel Day Lewis does such a good job playing an Italian that if you didn’t know who he was you might think he was Italian.  But his character is a self absorbed, chain smoking, rumpled (actually, dirty looking) Italian.   Not anyone I’d want to be around.  And although a lot is made of the fact that the character is a famous film director, we just have to take their word for it.   We see none of his prior work.   Without seeing his “genius” in action it is difficult to understand why anyone would put up with him.   He does nothing but mope around.  

Marion Cotillard does well as his long suffering wife but she isn’t given nearly enough to do except look long-suffering.   Penelope Cruz is his mistress and is little more than a caricature.  Kate Hudson and Sofia Loren are in bit parts that add almost nothing to the film (although it was fun watching Kate Hudson looking almost exactly like her mother back in the Laugh-In days). 

I enjoyed Nicole Kidman.  I’d say that she did a lot with such a small part but that’s partly because her character is key to the plot so she was given something to work with.  But credit where it’s due, she took what was given to her and made something of the two or three scenes she was in. She also, admittedly, owes a lot to wardrobe and makeup who made her look like a dead ringer for Brigit Bardot (although I’m assuming that since she is named Claudia the role is supposed to be a takeoff on Claudia Cardinale, but no matter).  

Judi Dench was, as usual, fantastic and totally wasted in the role.

In the end, I just didn’t care if the main character ever found himself or ever made a movie again.   It is possible that this musical just doesn’t translate well to film, but since the musical derived from a film I find that hard to believe.  So I have to lay the blame for failure at the feet of the director.

I did, however, like watching the Italian scenery.