Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Tale of Sound and Fury that Some Idiot Went and Told

Oh Nine. Nine, Nine, Nine. What happened?

Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of musicals and if you know The Sickness as a film student you know I love me my Fellini. So what happened? How did Rob Marshall who just a few years ago looked like he was ready to re-introduce the movie musical to the mainstream assemble such a total mess?

I have some theories. For one, it's difficult to convince people to go see musicals without stars. Nine has stars in spades. Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson and Dame Judi Dench to name a few. All excellent actors but none of them really belong in a musical (yes, I haven't forgotten Moulin Rouge! but Kidman gets a lot of help). So you've got stars.

But does it have performers? Good singers? Not really. Technically the most proficient singer in the film is pop-star Fergie is supposed to play the overweight prostitute Saraghina who awakens young Guido Contini's sexuality. Except her number "Be Italian" and her wardrobe is fairly chaste and Fergie hardly packed it in on for the role so it kind of misses the point. This emblematic of the film's larger problems. In attempting to be accessible the film feels like a muddle. The conceit of having characters dream their musical numbers in Chicago worked, but why establish this artifice in an already extremely heightened reality of a film set? When Fellini made 8 1/2 his style was frenetic, with scores of people bombarding Guido (and furthermore, the audience) as the camera gently panned across the magnificent Italian vistas. Here Marshall cuts when he should hold, a cardinal no-no for musicals where one wants to showcase performances. Marshall's film has another problem and that is the man has forgotten how to stage a dynamic musical number. He falls back on the blocking he used in Chicago only now it has a distinct air of "been there done that." How many times can we see woman step purposefully through darkened doorways and march into the foreground? We all liked "Cell-Block Tango" but what else you got? Even when he does shoot in wide he never holds it for more than a few seconds.

On the stage, especially in its most recent stage incarnation, Nine is a dazzling performance showcase. In the film, Guido's mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) shimmies sexily among sheets as she calls and sings to her lover in "A Call from the Vatican." It's hot but it doesn't really dazzle or illuminate the character. Compare this to Jane Krakowski on stage who dances along a vertical sheet that dangles a good twenty feet above the theater stage defying gravity and still enticing while singing in full voice. There is no reason for stage to be outdoing the limitless, boundary-less world of film. With a massive budget and imagination this scene could have been amazing, instead it's entirely pedestrian. Sure it's sexy, but it's also forgettable. The same goes for Judi Dench's rendition of "Folies Bergere" which on stage featured Chita Rivera blowing away audiences with the dance moves of a woman two decades her junior. The film version, by contrast has Dench walking across the stage. Ooooo.

Then there is the Daniel Day-Lewis problem. Now on paper Day-Lewis is one of, if not THE greatest actor of his generation. I've been a fan of his work under countless directors but man is he not right to play Guido. He doesn't so much sing as huff and puff his way through "Guido's Song." Compare this to Raul Julia or Antonio Banderas who start the show a real kick in their bold renditions. We want to empathize with a lead but while he claims to be blocked, Day-Lewis come off as passive and whiny. You want to scream at him to just sit down and do his work damn it! We're constantly told how tortured and conflicted Guido is but it's just a lot of telling, not showing.

Does anything work in this film? Surprisingly, Marion Cotillard, whom I have not been a fan of in the past, sings quite ably and her character arc is refreshing and sympathetic (if a bit tidy). Otherwise this film is a slog. I have to fight tooth and nail to get many of my friends to watch or try musicals. Nine is the sort of film that makes me have to work THAT much harder to make my case.

Oh and one last thing that drove me nuts. In Kate Hudson's song "Cinema Italiano" (which was created for the film) she sings about how she loves Guido's neorealism. This would be fine if the character were not based on Fellini. Unfortunately, he is and you'd think for one moment they would stop and realize that Fellini was not a neorealist. Many of his contemporaries were and one could make the argument that La Strada and I Vitelloni have ELEMENTS of neorealism in them but Fellini was too intrigued by the fantastic, the sublime joys found in dreams, sex, the circus and women to ever be completely mired in the neorealist doldrums of Rosselini and De Sica.


El Gigante said...

My fiend Allison (she's both lovely AND adorable) said on facebook:

"It's like you went into my brain, looked around, nodded in agreement, packed your findings in a bag, and then blogged about it. Seriously. You are 1736282919273822% right on! If only Marshall had been, too."

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Still think I like this, but I think I heard that Stephanie's song is wrong in character. She's a dumb vogue reporter, so she doesn't KNOW what she's saying.

Football Chick said...

Man! I really wanted this to be good. I guess I'll wait and Netflix it. Booo

El Gigante said...

Andrew: I don't buy it. She's flighty and superficial but I don't get dumb from her. She knows what she wants and what she likes.

FC: In an unusual move for me I will say don't even bother renting it. You'll get frustrated and throw up your hands with it. I had less trouble getting through Mamma Mia than this. At least that movie has fun with itself. This is, as I said "a slog."