“Imagination is God’s garden”
Being the film version of a Broadway musical based on the Fellini film 8 1/2, it interested me to find out what the title meant. The Italian director’s odd half integer was in regards to the fact that he made a few short films, so the work was its number in his oeuvre. But director Rob Marshall has only made two previous, non-television features, so that comparison is a dead-end. Maybe it has to do with the nine women in lead character Guido’s life? Nope again, there are only seven. So, the best explanation I can think of, after sitting through the seemingly longer than it was film, is simply that it follows the original cinematic classic. The reason being because the biggest success coming out of Nine is that it makes 8 1/2 look that much more brilliant. My opinion could be completely different if I had not seen the 1963 semi-autobiographical film, but the writers of the musical have no excuse for missing the source material, so why should I? Therefore, I blame the original book writers for the film’s failure. For all I know, this thing is a faithful adaptation of the stage play and a success as a result. However, as a relevant companion, or even send-up, of Fellini’s masterpiece, it doesn’t even compare.
I’m not even really certain why anyone would make a musical out of the personal journey of a director that’s over his head creatively and sexually such as Fellini’s doppelganger in Guido. The music itself isn’t even really exciting, something it should be to instill interest. Musically, I did appreciate the sounds, though, as they were soothing and classy in their score-like presentation. But this is a musical; there should be bombast and emotive crescendos clashing and jarring us awake. All we get here is matter-of-fact script points being sung rather than spoken, creating a musical fantasy world for Guido to escape into. And this is the most glaring misstep of the whole endeavor—it has all become so literal, shedding all of the ambiguity that made the original such a puzzle to be deciphered and interpreted. What could be meaningful in absolutely different ways to each viewer with 8 1/2 has but one linear explanation with Nine. Everything shot in crisp color is happening in real time, everything stripped of vibrancy going as far as being black and white is a past occurrence, and the moments of song on a half-finished soundstage are daydreams trapped in the interior mind of the Maestro. What was a journey of metaphysical proportions has become straightforward mediocrity. Perhaps the musical’s creators needed simplicity for a Broadway audience, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, they stripped all originality and creativity from the source.
Why would you even want to tackle a work so synonymous with its creator when all the personal moments hold none of that unique meaning to you? Fellini’s work was autobiographical; it was a catharsis to except the errors of his way. Nine is just a broad retelling about a director with creative-block, watching all his lies and secrets unravel before his very eyes. It becomes so nonspecific that the whole project becomes long-winded and boring. Why do we care about this adulterer trying to get on track? Why do we want him to find happiness when all he has ever given is pain and sorrow? Fellini created his for himself and those in his life written in, this was made for an audience. Yes, I understand Judi Dench’s Lilli and her words that Guido must continue working for the mere fact that his art speaks to people and touches them in such a way to be life altering. She speaks about the power of art and its intrinsic value to society, but the film itself does not. All the images on the screen show are an egomaniacal man and his selfishness. The fact that he shows compassion and the ability to be loving, if not ever actually loving, only makes the audience hate him more. By appearing that way, he shows the capacity to change as well as knowledge of his inexcusable actions. He does wrong and knows it; in which case we hope he fails.
Perhaps that is the purpose of this tale; maybe it really is just some masochistic interpretation of the hubris all directors possess. But why would you want to be affiliated with something that gives your own occupation a bad name? You wouldn’t and that’s why I deem this film a failure whereas 8 1/2 was a true success about inner-turmoil and artistic validity. All the intrigue and detail that hid between the lines is gone. You don’t get more literal and expository than what has been constructed here. We have a famous director, who hasn’t made a success since fame set in, about to begin a new work without any ideas where to start. And because the women of his life have always been his muses, he invites each one to the set, pitting the wife, the mistress, and the leading lady against each other. It’s a volatile situation to say the least and my only pleasure was in watching it all implode around him. This may be a spoiler, but the mere fact that an epilogue was tacked on, showing the actual shutting down of the film and then how Guido pulls himself up from his bootstraps to begin anew two years later shows how pandering the movie is. Once again we have a watered-down remake of a classic foreign piece that preaches to the lowest common denominator, making a masterpiece into a hack job unworthy of the talent involved to make it.
That talent does consist of a cast that is unrivaled on paper and screen. Daniel Day-Lewis has done his chameleon best at becoming this Italian philanderer giving a fantastic performance. Penélope Cruz is effective and I did enjoy both Dench and Kate Hudson in their small roles, each woman getting their chance to flex the golden pipes and sing their hearts out. And all of it is ravishing to look at. One cannot deny the talent that is Rob Marshall, but he needs to pick better material. I understand that the stage version won Tony awards and is highly praised and that’s okay since it’s a new medium, but by making it a movie again you automatically ask to compare it to the original film. It never stood a chance. However, if you do not feel like reading subtitles and need to check the story out via this, you will be privy to one component that resonates above the mediocrity, and that is the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard. Here is an actress that runs away with the emotions being strewn about, taking her opportunities and excelling. Even her musical number, literally and figuratively stripping away the constraints Day-Lewis’s Guido has put upon her, is jarring and memorable. It is just a shame that the rest of the translation is so half-hearted and misguided. You do not take a surreal work and streamline it to be narratively coherent yet still attempt to create a metaphor at the end, bridging the real with the dream. Nine did not earn the rite, walking all over a classic to then, at the end, try and pay respect.
Nine 5/10 | ★ ★
 Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) agonizes over starting his new film in “Guido’s Song” (musical number), from Rob Marshall’s NINE. Photo by: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.
 Saraghina (Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson) and dancers perform “Be Italian” (musical number) in Rob Marshall’s NINE. Photo by: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.