Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are eating biscotti. This week they try their best to follow the rhythm of Rob Marshall’s Nine, but finally realize that it has none.
So, Ben, when I got home from the Nine screening I attended, I started writing a short story. I felt I had to do something, no matter how small, in order to appease the gods of the arts, who undoubtedly have been affronted by Rob Marshall’s film. It might as well be called “Mambo Italiano: The Musical” because it seems to be adapted from that Dean Martin song. In fact, it’s adapted from a decades-old stage musical that itself was adapted—the gall!—from 8 ½; the show’s score is almost all flashy numbers with bold-faced motifs that signify Italianness. “Style is the new content,” a reporter for Vogue (Kate Hudson) says, and that about sums up Marshall’s filmmaking.
Apparently, evoking the spirit of Fellini means dwelling on the master director’s films’ surfaces: dark glasses, dark suits, lots of accents. (Why is everyone speaking English in thick Italian inflections? Because they’re Italian, duh!) Daniel Day-Lewis, capably taking on the Mastroianni/Fellini role of a film director suffering from director’s block and a surfeit of women, objects to the reporter’s characterization of his films: that the suits are as important as the men in them. Marshall doesn’t object though: here, the suits are more important!
Oh Ben, I might be able to look past the galling shallowness of Nine if it weren’t so repulsive in so many other ways. Honestly, I can’t begin to understand Rob Marshall: why does he keep making musicals when, judging by this and Chicago, he so clearly hates them? He’s like the Michael Bay of song-and-dance: all the musical numbers are cut with an MTV sensibility. People don’t create any dances here—the camera does. The actors may as well be standing still. (It’s the same problem with Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? Why won’t editors just let me watch people dance without the swooping and rat-a-tat-tats?) His camera won’t stop moving; literally, I don’t think there’s a single shot in the movie that isn’t panning left or right, as though the movie were a shark and the audience’s investment in it would die if it rested for a moment.
You know there’s a problem with your musical if you could cut out all the musical numbers and not at all affect the story. Like any other genre, the musical has a basic form that works (sure, an artist could break the rules in compelling ways, but he has to learn them first): musical numbers are integrated into the plot so as to move it forward, just like the blowouts in an action movie; Astaire and Rogers dance because they can’t express their affection in words. Their eventual embrace stands in for the movie-romance’s requisite kiss. But here, every musical number is a digression, a break away from the story that’s set, for no good reason except to make it “realistic”—because people don’t break into song in Real Life unless they’re dreaming—in a fantasy realm of sound stage rafters. Marshall’s operating philosophy seems to be that contemporary audiences won’t buy into a musical, so he has to destroy the genre and, by doing so, trick them into being entertained by singing. At that point, why bother? Just make another geisha movie or something.
I really don’t know about the Oscar chances of this one. I felt the same way about Chicago and that took home Best Picture. Nine might do the same or it might be this year’s Australia. It has ratcheted up a few Golden Globe nods, which is either a road to the Oscars or the result of scant competition; as our editor Mark recently noted, “what other musicals or comedies came out this year?”
Like you, Henry, I wholeheartedly wish this shiny disaster had never been made, or at least that I hadn’t given it two hours of my life. Failing that, I wish the film we’re discussing, Nine, were actually the romantic comedy “Nine” that we see Guido working on in the final scene (spoiler?), because at least that project didn’t look quite so annoyingly entitled as this wannabe awards movie does. Part of why I didn’t hate Chicago so much as I did this film is because Marshall’s previous musical at least attempted to integrate its sung and danced set pieces into some kind of narrative, or set them partly in the world of the story. There was a sense of a larger metropolis and world beyond the stylized soundstages and fleeting glimpses of noir-ish cityscapes. Chicago was also a much, much more interesting stage musical to begin with. Here, despite the copious location shooting around Rome and aerial views of the Mediterranean coast that are presumably intended to back up the film’s claims to Made in Italy authenticity, we never seem to leave the studio where the film begins, ends, and returns for every musical interlude—I kept hoping for an epic zoom out to reveal that the whole film had actually been taking place inside a giant film studio, Synecdoche, New York-style.
This Baudrillardian substitution feels all the more suspect since the movie Guido (Day-Lewis) avoids working on for the duration of the film is supposed to be a tip-toeing-through-time nationalistic epic called “Italia.” So we’re watching an augmented Hollywood version of Italianness about a director trying to make a similarly overblown pastiche of Italian culture. That film-within-the-film, an unfocused and over-the-hill director’s attempt to placate the various parties calling for his blood, is supposed to feature ten episodes about powerful women from different periods of Italian history all played by the same actress (Nicole Kidman), and sounds quite a bit like Nine.
Well, sort of: Here we get six powerful actresses from the history of cinema (plus Fergie, so, six and a half?), only two of whom (Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz) are given enough screen time to do anything interesting. Cruz sings the film’s least awful song, which culminates as she, um, culminates during a stylized session of phone sex with Guido. It works partly because the ubiquitous sound stage backdrop only becomes visible as she comes down from her orgasm, and because this song actually has an effect on the narrative, however small: Guido listens, and likes what he hears. Cotillard, for her part, does what she can with the fairly thankless role of the estranged wife, which she turns into the film’s strongest.
The rest of Nine’s A-list female actors were apparently cast as part of the production design, so that the audience can ooh and ah every time they trot onscreen. “Hey look, it’s Judi Dench playing herself if she were a French cabaret singer!” “Ha, Nicole Kidman shows up just long enough to get her dress fitted then leaves!” “Wow, doesn’t that life-size animatronic Sophia Loren puppet look creepily realistic!” Coming from an American hack, the Italian machismo that Fellini undermined at every turn becomes a kind of grotesque license to treat female characters and actors as if they’re disposable, which he does with uncouth, hyper-kinetic glee throughout. The guiding notion behind the casting of this film and virtually every other facet of its production, seems to have been that the number of awards received increases in direct proportion to the amount of expensive shit you throw at the camera, which only partly explains the phenomenal amount of talent that Marshall was allowed to play filmmaker with.
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actress (Marion Cotillard), Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood), Best Original Score (Andrea Guerra), Best Original Song (“Cinema Italiano”), Best Editing (Claire Simpson and Wyatt Smith).
(photo credit: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.)