Nine posterRed lightDirector Rob Marshall’s follow-up to his leg-kicking, Oscar-snaring adaptation of Broadway behemoth Chicago is Nine, an Italian soft porn musical with virtually no Italians in it. When Fergie belts out one of the more rousing numbers, Be Italian, roaring like a plump toothless tiger determined to prove she’s still capable of swallowing a man whole, Marshall and co. would have done well to listen to her advice. Nine is about as Italian as a Pizza Hut meal deal.

It’s as if the casting director went out of their way to avoid hiring real Italians, though the film is supposed to be a flamboyant celebration of Fellini’s inimitable film-about-filmmaking, 8 ½. Daniel Day Lewis is Irish, Judi Dench is English, Fergie is American, Penelope Cruz is Spanish, Nicole Kidman is Aussie. Sophia Loren, looking like the defibrillator has been applied between takes, appears conspicuously out of place. She is, after all, Italian. Lack of legit Italians does not necessarily make Nine a bad movie, but it exemplifies Marshall’s contrived approach, rich in the desire to make exotic things palatable, to shoot for the big audience, a sort of faux high-art for the multiplex crowd.

Daniel Day Lewis plays Guido Contini, a legendary and apparently brilliant director (there’s no evidence of that here) who is struggling for inspiration to start his new film. He walks around mentally undressing his beautiful colleagues, then beds them. His marriage to Luisa (Marion Cotillard) is deteriorating and his relationship with his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) is similarly in turmoil. Both are beautiful women – one of the reasons Guido doesn’t solicit much sympathy. The characters do a lot of singing. There isn’t much story.

Anyone who’s seen Chicago will note that Nine looks nigh-on the same, infused with that smoky whisky-n-fishnets look, beautiful in a darkly bewitching way. Marshall obviously said to himself “hey peeps, Chicago went pretty freakin well, eh, Best Picture ‘n all, so let’s do that again” – thus he shoves his own film through the Xerox. If anybody else directed Nine, Marshall would probably cry black and blue that his style had been pilfered.

Remember Gus van Sant’s shot-by-shot in-colour remake of Psycho? Remember how much it sucked? The big question has always been, why? The plot and characters were the same. The shots were almost complete replicas. But the variables didn’t match up. The small details turned into major stumbling blocks. The film was different. The world had changed.

The same theory applies to Nine. Though the source material may be different, the approach is the same. It’s understandable that Marshall thought he was onto a winning formula but the cabaret style worked unusually well in Chicago – particularly because of the subject matter, its performance history, the way audiences invariably associate the production with smoky, dimly lit venues. It was never going to be easy to replicate.

There’s no denying that Daniel Day Lewis is a powerhouse performer but Nine should go down as the film in which his ego tipped the balance. Day Lewis contributes a smug and self-contented performance; his presence is commanding as ever but his Italian accent is unconvincing and his presence cannot return a dying film to life. His vocal strings leave a lot to be desired. In his big music number, he doesn’t really sing. It’s more sing-speak, and it’s pretty flat.

Despite musty yet handsome cinematography from Dion Beebe, Nine is a song and dance snoozer. For all its musical grunt and sexual innuendo it is bland as plain tofu, the proverbial star fish in bed. Buy a ticket, take a nap. Then go home and rent Chicago.

Nine’s Australian theatrical release date: January 21, 2009.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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