In the opening moments of Nine, creatively constipated director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) notes that as a filmmaker “you kill your film several times,” firstly by diluting its initial inspiration; it’s an apt observation that’s also applicable to this film, a twice-removed, uninspired rehashing of Federico Fellini’s midlife-crisis reverie, 8 ½. Depersonalizing Il Maestro’s quasi-autobiographical, feature-length inner monologue to an even further extent than its over-praised stage musical adaptation by adding a roster of dissimilar, big-name stars and a slathering of irritatingly phony, Italiano brio, Rob Marshall labors unsuccessfully to thematically unite a glitzy assemblage of roughly related episodes about the tenuous connection between love and art, each of which spotlight a stormy relationship or dramatically cool connection between the conflicted Fellini stand-in and one of the women in his Euro-glamorous orbit.
As Guido’s emotionally spent, frustrated-actress wife, Luisa, Marion Cotillard is typically faultless, a teary-eyed saint suitably unaffected by the all-dancing, all-singing hullaballoo that surrounds her character’s marriage-in-crisis vignette, though the same can’t be said for Guido’s secondary squeezes, like Carla (Penélope Cruz), a semi-comical, coochie-coo mistress whose song of obsessive devotion to her man (“Who’s afraid to kiss your feet? I’m not!”) makes her desperation hard to take seriously and, like most of Nine’s blasé, lyrically on-the-nose numbers, holds little intrinsic value as diverting musical comedy. Other semi-intimates in Guido’s crowded retinue include professional underling and confidante Lilli (Judi Dench, disastrously miscast and particularly embarrassing in a routine with accompanying showgirls) and superstar-muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman, poorly served by improper lighting and a blond weave that seems intended to distract from her face) whose blinding star quality is repeatedly presented as a given but never demonstrated. Guido and Claudia’s history of mutual affection, sold mostly in one scene that’s a bit too chaste to read as genuinely Italian, nevertheless typifies the inoffensive love-in vibe Marshall opts for throughout, overlooking potentially unsavory dimensions of a reputed scaliwag director’s sex life in favor of a succession of bloodlessly PG-13 encounters heavy on implication.
Nine’s liveliest and most promisingly dirty interlude, a crisply shot, black-and-white flashback to Guido’s (implied) childhood deflowering by a Fergalicious prostitute, is a middling success as a toe-tapper, despite inexplicable cutaways to a stage-bound rendition of the film’s reductive anthem “Be Italian,” a lyrical travesty that seems like it was dreamed up in a fashion magazine’s editorial meeting. The pervasive feeling that a superficial enthusiasm for La Dolce Vita is the true inspiration for this film’s persistent Vespa-worship aesthetic and fashion industry-friendly mise-en-scène becomes harder to shake after Kate Hudson’s newly-created Vogue reporter character is dropped into the proceedings for a sequin-heavy, completely inert, music video-style number about wearing sunglasses at night and being outta sight; by that point the tender magical realism of8 ½ given fleeting homage in the film’s opening passages has receded far into the background and Nine has been revealed as a recursive work: a passionless production by a creatively blocked director.