The second Federico Fellini film to become a Broadway show and then a Hollywood musical – the first was Nights of Cabiria, which became Sweet Charity just a few years later – Nine is based on the legendary Italian director's self-referential 1963 masterpiece 8½, which dramatized his own experiences as a filmmaker dealing with a creative slump and haunted by the women in his life.
What we have now is Daniel Day-Lewis playing the old Marcello Mastroianni role, as Italian director Guido Contini (renamed from Guido Anselmi in 8½), who in 1965 is gearing up to shoot a new feature even though he hasn't even come up with an idea for his script. An A list – perhaps even A+ list – cast of leading ladies (Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, Fergie) variously tempt him, scold him, and provide counsel.
I'm not sure how one is to review this film: In comparison to the Fellini original? As a musical? As a statement on the filmmaking process? Maybe I'm suffering from Guido's writer's block, but I don't know exactly how to begin my critique.
First of all, Nine is surprisingly well-cast, with everybody perfectly suited towards his or her character and not slouching when it comes to the song and dance numbers. Pop singer Fergie, as the lusty prostitute Saraghina that Guido recalls from his childhood, comes off the best, either because she is the one true professional singer in the cast or because her song "Be Italian" is the catchiest of the bunch. (Each woman in Guido's life gets her own song.) But Cotillard, as Guido's long-suffering wife, is given the most humanity in the film.
Ironically, the forced attempts at finding pathos at every turn is what's wrong with Nine. For example, Fellini, as a 1963 Italian, dealt with Guido's infidelities with unsentimental dry humor, whereas the contemporary Americans who put this film together decided to treat this subplot soberly – to their loss, I'm afraid. Because while 8½, like most of Fellini's films, was ultimately about the absurdity of life – the world is a circus and all that – Nine becomes a serious, even downbeat, examination of show business relationships.
Although I am not the biggest fan of 8½, I agree that what makes it work is how remarkably personal it is. This was Fellini's 1963 story about Fellini's 1963 life, rambling and surreal and arrogant and funny as it was. But when you make it a period piece with an English-speaking cast and a still somewhat green American director (this is only Marshall's third feature) who works in a system entirely different from Fellini's Cinecitta, the disassociation with the source material is palpable. You will not find the spirit of Federico Fellini here. That is perhaps expected – Fellini truly was one of a kind – but still unfortunate.
I can't even imagine what those people unfamiliar with 8½, who surely make up the vast majority of Nine's audience, will make of this musical. I didn't dislike it, but I do think it's a misfire, not nearly as enjoyable as Marshall's debut feature Chicago. It has its moments – for those even slightly familiar with Fellini's life and career, it suggests some of the pain that Fellini's real-life wife, actress Giulietta Masina, might have endured during the '60s, and even hints at how important Fellini's La Dolce Vita was to its fleetingly famous Swedish star Anita Ekberg (here reimagined as Nicole Kidman). But mostly it left me wanting to watch 8½ again. Don't settle for imitations.