Remaking Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is about as necessary as fashioning an umbrella out of rainwater. Director Rob Marshall (I can only assume a glutton for punishment) takes on this very task with Nine. The result is an enjoyable, but ultimately pointless exercise. While Marshall’s Nine may be a bit of cheeky fun, it features little worth recommending it over Fellini’s original. It’s not so much a ‘cover song’ as it is a ‘dance remix’. Its greatest achievement is to remind us how great the original version is.
The picture is based on the 1982 musical of the same name, itself inspired by Fellini’s 1963 film. Famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one week away from shooting his latest movie, bravely titled Italia. Contini doesn’t have a script, but he has the first image of the film etched into his brain: statuesque muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman) will emerge from the darkness and plant a kiss on his lips. Sure, it’s not much, but it’s more than they had to work with on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
As pressure mounts on Contini, he abandons the set to meet up with his lover Carla (Penelope Cruz), much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard). The Italian auteur finds himself plagued by Catholic guilt, extreme narcissism and the limits of his own talent. As the starting date of production looms closer, Contini looks towards the women in his life for inspiration, including his costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), a writer from Vanity Fair (Kate Hudson), his late mother (Sophia Loren) and a prostitute from his youth (Stacy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson). His memories and fantasies are transported from his imagination onto a film stage (is there any difference?) and brought to life as snappy musical sequences.
Well, some are snappy. Others achieve little more than furrowing brows (Dench’s burlesque ode to costumes is the wrong kind of showstopper). For the most part, the musical sequences add little to proceedings, the biggest exceptions being those sung by Day-Lewis, Cotillard and Cruz. The cast are all game, which helps. Day-Lewis seems to be having a lot of fun and Cotillard proves she is one of the best working actresses around with her fragile (but not weak-willed) performance. Cruz, although sexy enough to strip paint off a wall, is playing the same emotionally unstable firebrand that she always does. Sure, no one is better at it then her, but it’s hardly exciting anymore.
The film moves briskly and is charming enough. Sadly, it’s hard to recommend a film whose best parts are lifted wholesale from another. Nine’s best moments (a hotel rendezvous between Guido and Carla; flashbacks to Guido’s youth) are taken almost line-for-line and shot-for-shot from Fellini’s film. Marshall adds nothing to proceedings, except for some overwhelmingly obnoxious direction. He pulls out every trick in the book, reaching desperately to achieve 8 ½‘s profundity. He whips out the handheld for some cinema verite style shenanigans; he occasionally burns the side of the frame like a child burns the edges of a piece of paper to make it look like a treasure map; he shoots some of the musical sequences the way one would shoot an episode of MTV’S Cribs; in all of the moments featuring Sophia Loren, the camera seems to be dripping in Vaseline. At times it is like watching the know-it-all kid in class, darting their hand in the air in response to every question, begging to be called upon to show off. “Look at me! Look at what I can do!!!”
All of my problems with the film are captured perfectly in the musical sequence ‘Cinema Italiano’, one of three tunes written specifically for the movie. Hudson’s journalist flirts with Contini at a bar, and immediately he fantasises about her singing a song of devotion to him. The track sounds like a Toxic-era Britney Spears toss off, with Hudson exclaiming her adoration of Italian cinema, placing “neorealism” and “the play of light” at the same level of importance as “skinny ties” and “hip coffee bars”. She may know the words, but she doesn’t know what they mean. In the same way, Marshall understands that 8 ½ is a classic film, but he is unable to put together a tribute and achieves little more than a re-staging. He imposes a traditional Hollywood narrative upon a tale famous for its dreamlike nature. He knows the words, but not the music.