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Nine

Wonderful performances highlight a lively if lightweight adaptation of the Broadway musical.

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I haven't seen the stage version of Nine, a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's 8½, but friends who have tell me it's an enjoyable piece of not very much. If that's true, then director Rob Marshall gets it just right in his film of the Broadway show. 

Nine revolves around Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a revered Italian director whose early films were great but whose last few flopped. Now he's making something new, and as the international media clamors around him, trying to discern what it's about, so is Guido: He has a production and a star but no script -- and no idea of what he's going to do.

So the Maestro (as they call him) escapes Rome to a resort town, where he holes up with his mistress (Penélope Cruz), lies to his wife (Marion Cotillard), fantasizes about his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), flirts with an American journalist (Kate Hudson), and remembers poignant moments from his 1920s boyhood involving his mother (Sophia Loren), a local vixen (Fergie), and the priests who tried to keep him from becoming -- well, an artist. 

All of these women have songs, and as he did in Chicago, Marshall cuts away from the characters' real (or in this case, reel) lives when they sing and dance. I can't think of another musical where every song is a solo: There's one star per production number in Nine, plus a chorus and backup dancers to add a little pizzazz. The tunes are agreeable, but the women who sing them are uniformly terrific, and together they create a movie whose parts are much better than the whole.

Most surprising of all is Judi Dench as Guido's astute costume designer, who tries to convince him that there's nothing like the Folies Bergère. Who knew she could sing! To call her matronly would be an offense against nature: She's got the best knockers in the show, all trussed up in a bustier, with a red feather boa dripping over her shoulder and trailing behind her as she cavorts across the stage.

It's all entertaining to watch, and Day-Lewis almost outdoes them. Sure, he sings and dances, and very well -- athletically so in his opening number -- but his soulful performance as the guilt-ridden Guido takes some edge off the music and adds it to the drama. It's good to have him back in films after his long hiatus.

The late Anthony Minghella, and the novelist Michael Tolkin (The Player), adapted the stage musical's script to the screen. For cinema buffs, Nine offers some intriguing reflections about Maestro Fellini, and some clever lines about his bastard art form. Guido tells the fawning press that films are a dream, and that directors kill their dream many times: when they write, when they film, when they talk about their work. That's lovely -- and much more interesting than the hackneyed idea, in this almost campily Italo-philic show, that Italy is "a country run by men who are run by women."

On profile: the stymied director (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife (Marion Cotillard)
  • On profile: the stymied director (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife (Marion Cotillard)

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