Film Review: Nine

Rob Marshall’s best film yet—a delirious celebration of the musical in all of its glamour and seduction, a total dazzler.

Real glamour—one of film’s eternal allures—has been missing on the screen of late, but into the breach comes Rob Marshall with Nine. He has taken something of a sow's ear of a tacky Broadway show and transformed it into a dazzling cinematic silk purse, which pulsates with élan.

The original source for all of this is Fellini's 8 1/2, which I frankly never found to be the masterpiece so many have claimed, with its self-indulgence, cartoonish randomness and plethora of ethnic clichés. An artist's creative block is rarely exciting when dramatized, and its protagonist, the female-swamped film director Guido Contini, is too much of a shallow narcissist to engender much empathy. The film’s view of women has always been problematic and rather stereotypically misogynistic—either blowsy whores, grim martinets serving as wives, or glowingly idealized Madonna-mamas. Happily here, Marshall clearly adores women and he glorifies each carefully cast lady in his film in a way not seen since the Hollywood studio glory days.

The setting is 1962 Italy and the director revels in the dolce vita of sports cars. paparazzi, skinny ties and plump-lipped women, and a general air of delirious sensuality. Dion Beebe's cinematography is a total ravishment, the editing fluidly conjoins the sparkling shards of Marshall's vision, John Myre's production design makes cleverly versatile use of a baroque Cinecittà set, and Colleen Atwood's costumes fill the screen with spangled ebullience. These elements do much to bolster a script which remains a hollow study of a hollow man.

Daniel Day-Lewis is Guido, and, mercifully, without attempting a heavy Italian accent or mannerisms, does his best to flesh out this cipher—we're too easily supposed to automatically grant him genius and humanity. Luckily, Marshall has scoured the Earth to provide him with the most exciting women on the planet. Kate Hudson makes her most effective screen appearance yet as a fun-loving Vogue reporter, with the irresistible verve of the young Ginger Rogers. Her sizzling catwalk number, celebrating all hip things Italiano, is a showstopper, and the sight of her, blonde hair swinging, body hectically writhing, with one of cinema’s great come-hither smiles, should make her a real star at last. It's an impossible number to follow, but amazingly, Sophia Loren, although unappetizingly made up and underused, sounds lovely, exuding soothing maternal warmth in a lullaby written expressly for her. (Yes, one recalls, she did sing quite charmingly in her early films.)

Judi Dench has a marvelous feistiness and authenticity as Guido's trusted costume designer, and her number, very French music hall, delivered with divine authority in that memorably bruised voice, also reminded me that she was the original London Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Marion Cotillard brings unexpected depth as Guido's long-suffering wife, but I wish her big song was something more than an out-of-character striptease affair. After similarly sexy turns by Penélope Cruz and Fergie, it just seems one-note overkill.

Fergie is actually pretty sensational as the accommodating whore of Guido's childhood, almost terrifyingly sensual to both the little boys of her town and us, singing the score's one catchy song, "Be Italian," with staggering pipes, a pop Ethel Merman. Cruz has a meaty role as Guido's discarded mistress but, disappointingly, doesn't do anything we haven't seen before Almodóvar-wise, and her number, for all of its physical gyrations, feels a bit flat.

As the Anita Ekberg-like movie-star muse, Nicole Kidman weirdly lacks the charisma she triumphantly flaunted in Moulin Rouge. Her appearance, despite the most magnificent fur coat in film history, seems inexpressively glazed and her singing of a tired ballad does little to redeem it. But these are merely small cavils with the splashily enjoyable holiday feast Marshall has served up.