According to Wikipedia, Neorealism, or Italian Neorealism, is a style of art that is characterized by portraying the poor and working class families of characters and filmed on location. Sometimes using non processional actors, neorealism portrays everyday life of poverty and desperation. One of the most famous of the Neorealist directors, supposedly (though it doesn’t really make sense” is Federico Fellini. Fellini was famous for making brooding and dark films, like La Strada and La Dolce Vita. At a time in his life where he had reached a sort of “director’s block”, he made a shocking and groundbreaking surrealistic film called 8 ½, the numbers representing the number of movies he had made thus far; eight feature length films and the ½ for a short film.
The film, famous for showing trippy and fantastical dreamscapes, was adapted by Arthur Kopit into a musical called Nine (though, I think it should have been called Nine and a Half, considering the musical was a full length production), with the score by Maury Yeston. Originally starring Raul Julia, the first production was in 1982, and it was directed by Broadway legend Tommy Tune. In 2009, Oscar nominated director of the musical Chicago, Rob Marshall, adapted the musical to the screen with a “so-starry-it’ll-blind-you” cast.
Nine is a midlife crisis movie, illustrating famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) going through a troubled time, trying to direct a new film while he can’t even write the first page of the script. Meanwhile, the women in his life are shaking things up, with his wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard) fighting depression, his mistress Carla (Oscar nominated Penelope Cruz) whining about not being able to be with him at all times, his star and muse Claudia Jensen (Nicole Kidman) losing faith in his new film, and his mother (Sophia Loren) being all motherly, as well and sorting out his problems with his costume designer and confidant Lili La Fleur (Judi Dench). His life falls apart, and when he tries to turn to these women, it just gets worse. Think of it as Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women in musical form, but with the main man at the front of the film.
The visual design is the film’s strong point, of course, with the dazzling Rob Marshall doing a fine job, and Oscar winning costume designer Coleen Atwood doing what she does best: creating flashy and amazing pieces. The cinematography by Dion Beebe is top notch, and the overall cinematic style is gorgeous and luxurious, like Marshall’s previous work on Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha. It flows through the musical numbers easily and smoothly.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s Italian accent sounds oddly thick and cumbersome, and halfway through the film, we’re still not used to it. But, it doesn’t exactly mar the performance much. His singing ability is quite average, and he tries to make it through numbers like “Guido’s Song” and “I Can’t Make This Movie”. I kind of wonder why Marshall didn’t cast Antonio Banderas, who played Contini in the Tony winning revival of Nine on Broadway.
Marion Cotillard gives a fine performance as his wounded wife, struggling with loving Guido while he’s off philandering. Her voice, however, is weak and not meant for this role, one that belts out “Take It All” as a “lover wronged” song. Her eyes are full of emotion and she has a genuine sense of loss and sadness, but it’s a musical role and the latter half of it is not good.
Penelope Cruz is Carla, Guido’s sexy mistress. Cruz is the best of the cast when it comes to singing unprofessionally, as she purrs her way through “A Call from the Vatican”, what sounds like Maury Yeston’s answer to “When You’re Good to Mama” from Chicago. While the song, full of blatant sexual references (as opposed to “Mama’s” being subtle innuendos), may sound sexy from Cruz’s soft vice, the song itself is actually quite bland and a little vulgar. Cruz spends most of her time in the time whining, and if we’re supposed to sympathize with Carla, it doesn’t work. Marshall tries his best to play up “mistresses have feelings too”, but why should she whine when Louisa is the most hurt?
Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, or Stacy Ferguson, does a terrific job in an underwritten, almost unused character; Saraghina, the whore from Guido’s childhood, and she storms through the screen singing “Be Italian”, easily the best number in the film. Sexy and sultry, she looks great and the choreography is awesome. But Saraghina only has that one little role.
The rest of the cast, in comparison with Cruz and Cotillard, are hardly in the film. Judi Dench is divine as Lili and she does a good job singing “Folies Bergères”, but it isn’t great. Kate Hudson plays a Vogue fashion reporter who hits on Guido constantly, and while she does a good job singing “Cinema Italiano”, the version that’s featured in the film sounds flat and boring. Check out the single version, that’s on iTunes. Sophia Loren is hardly in the film, making appearances here and there, acting motherly. You’d think they would have used her as much as possible, but they don’t. And Nicole Kidman is again hardly in the film, which is a disappointment. While she soulfully sings “Unusual Way”, it’s a bit unusual that the director didn’t manage to incorporate equal amount of screen time for all of his actresses.
Nine is quite obviously not as good as Chicago, simply because Nine isn’t that great to begin with. The score is average, and the story is better told by Fellini himself than someone else. The film 8 ½ broke the fourth wall in many ways, introducing new techniques and ways to look at art. But the musical can’t deal with that. It tries to be big and huge and have as many stars as possible, but it becomes top heavy and its storyline weighs it down. Overall, Nine is enough.