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Zero Would Be More Like It: Notes on Nine and Broken Embraces

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Zero Would Be More Like It: Notes on Nine and Broken Embraces

What makes Rob Marshall’s Nine so peculiarly bad is its sheer self-congratulation. We’re incessantly told how important, how fascinating the director Guido Contini must be, and we as viewers are expected to take this on faith, but never once does Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) do or say anything even remotely intriguing. The movie has no real subject; it’s proudly about nothing. Not the arid nothingness of a Van Sant movie, but a boring sort of Condé Nast nothingness. If the real-life Federico Fellini had been as dull and as mopey as his fictional counterpart Contini, no one would have ever staged a Broadway musical [loosely] inspired by the autobiographical in the first place, which means we could have been spared this present debacle that masquerades as entertainment.

Day-Lewis gamely tries to personify a song-and-dance man, yet his integrity as a performer works against him in a Rob Marshall movie. When Day-Lewis, in his first solo number, climbs the spiraling soundstage staircase that rises into the dark, it ought to be an iconic moment, but there’s magic neither in Marshall’s airless staging nor in his unimaginative camera work.

But back to that nothingness:

It’s vitally important to Nine, because that’s all there is. When the end credits rolled, I was aghast to see the screenplay credited to Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, both of whom have done far superior work, and even their past failures (Tolkin’s The New Age, Minghella’s Cold Mountain) at least had the germs of subject matter spreading about their respective universes. Nine, by sharp contrast, feels like the end result of marketing, or rather of that dreaded term “branding.” It’s nothing but a bunch of “brands” all strung together—the Judi Dench brand, the Penélope Cruz brand, and so forth; I could imagine a gaggle of ad-flack creeps coked out on the sheer nonsense that is “SEO” getting a real hard-on for this empty shell, a spectacle that feels emblematic of what a flash-over-substance nightmare Barack Obama’s presidency has turned out to be.

It’s painful to watch Day-Lewis’s labors tossed away on such idiocy, as he hides behind a potted palm in a hotel lobby, for instance, saddled with lines like, “What, no? Oh, God, no!” Nine coasts on his and the other actors’ reputations; then the movie wants, if not outright demands, to be applauded for its parasitic leech-like behavior of attaching itself to the “right people,” while accomplishing absolutely nothing of its own. It’s so nakedly a paean to shallowness that one wonders why Marshall didn’t splice in footage of the Salahis.

Maury Yeston’s songs are lousy: the lyrics embarrassing, the so-called melodies unmelodic, unmemorable. Even Mamma Mia! had more conviction and authenticity than this.

Ultimately, it’s all extremely conventional: a boring, desiccated little story about a heel who must find redemption. So, then, why all this counterfeit nostalgia grafted onto Fellini? Nine could just as well be about Edward Dmytryk or Robert Siodmak. Or about anyone whose name was yanked at random out of the phone directory.

What about all those “brands” on orgiastic display? Well, most of them are horrible. Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren manage to get by: Kidman seems to know what a fiasco this is (she’s been in so many) and so she hangs back, during her few scenes, without investing much of herself (when she does make an effort, she comes across as shrill); Loren has more power in silence than in her girlish voice—as the ghost of Contini’s mother, she’s pleasant and wistful, which in this movie constitutes something of an achievement. Yet Marshall keeps trying to turn Loren back into a goddess, when she’s long since earned the right not to keep on fostering illusions.

I admit that my knives were sharpened for Marion Cotillard, whom, one or two faithful readers may recall, I detested in the overblown La Vie en Rose. As Contini’s betrayed wife, Cotillard conjures none of Anouk Aimée’s impish charm or devastating, low-key charisma. Nonetheless, this French actress stands out as the only good thing about Nine. She isn’t pretty, she lacks a memorable presence, yet she can suggest pathos without wallowing in it—a valuable trait.

Marshall’s cross-cutting felt germane in Chicago; the fluid editing fit his vision, however skewed, of the material, and the material was so potent it covered the director’s ass. In Nine, without anything to camouflage the void, Marshall cross-cuts relentlessly because it’s his crutch—he doesn’t know what else to do. He doesn’t trust the songs and dances to build under their own steam or else he doesn’t trust the dumb audience. Marshall thus sabotages Cotillard’s grittiest sequence—her B&W striptease, the one number that has some emotional power, some fearlessness—by slicing it back and forth between a dialogue scene.

Except for the Saraghina episode, which is utterly flavorless, thanks in no small part to Stacy Ferguson’s resemblance to a mule decked out in red seaweed, nothing in Nine stems from memory, the essential DNA of most Fellini films. I suspect that Todd Haynes might have wrung something out of this thin sideshow, yet in a sense he already has: his masterly 2007 musical I’m Not There was a much greater tribute (in spite of being about Bob Dylan) to the spirit that infused some of Fellini’s better work. Haynes the conjurer was able to summon a bit of Fellini’s trademark satiric whimsy while bringing to it a sense and sensibility uniquely his own. Marshall not only can’t provide the illusion that he gives a damn, he’s like a clown wearing a cheap, off-the-rack suit while tearing through the pages of Esquire, Details, GQ, and other shitty magazines in search of more nouveau-riche posturing to plaster across the screen.

Which brings me to the casting of Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, and Kate Hudson.

Hudson, encased in layers of rouge, suggests a demonic cupcake, a fat-cheeked horror, a female impersonator. Clad in white-spangled sequined spaghetti straps with matching go-go boots, she’s supposed to be a journo who just adores Contini movies; her “big” number, “Cinema Italiano,” has the distinction of being the most numbingly illiterate song in the show. The lyrics made me want to stuff popcorn down my ear canals, and Marshall’s choreography, such as it is, consists of Hudson jumping up and down in that hideous costume. Hudson, who can’t act, sing, or dance, troops along like a pudgy-faced sorority sister who has wolfed down plate after plate of marshmallow fudge brownies, yet still believes (mistakenly) that she’s pulchritudinous. It’s only fair for me to criticize Hudson this way, as the non-performer and her enabler—both of them oblivious to what a flabby, petulant, misshapen tub of lard she’s become—insist on her sexiness.

As for Judi Dench, she’s the same in everything. In role after role, she cannibalistically feasts on Glenda Jackson’s mannerisms and vocal phrasing. When near the end, as Contini’s confidante, Dench morosely chirps to Day-Lewis, “Nobody wants to be alone,” her voice rises so high into the squeak range I began to think one of the Chipmunks could do as serviceable a job as she does.

Orgiastically humping and bumping and sliding down a velvet fuchsia pole in white fishnet stockings, Cruz gives a performance so strenuously embarrassing that the Academy ought to demand its Oscar back. Here, she’s Euro-trashy in the worst, most stereotypical manner possible, singing lyrics as limp-wristedly bad as, “I’ll vibrate like a string I’m plucking,” while carrying on as though her desirability were a given. It doesn’t help that she’s chosen to play this role—of Contini’s mistress—as someone with shit for brains. In the 1960s, when comely European actresses appeared in parts like this—sexy and carefree—there was (sometimes) a mitigating fusion of naïvete and voluptuousness. Cruz, very much on the other hand, is inept and amateurish. It is hard to believe that she has ever stepped in front of a movie camera before. But then she has never been exposed/stranded by Rob Marshall, or subject to such stupid ideas as the staging of a seduction scene that takes place in two separate rooms—she fondling herself in one, whilst Day-Lewis writhes in passion listening to her on the phone, from his hotel bed, as a doctor and fat nurse try to examine him.

Cruz fares less terribly in her other new film, Pedro Almodóvar’s tepid, nasty, joyless freak show Broken Embraces, although, alas, that isn’t saying much.

While not as openly repulsive as that great yuppie favorite Volver, Broken Embraces, in its convoluted flashback structure, springs “surprise” after surprise on us—“surprises” that are perfunctory and stale; the macaroons of a filmmaker who’s finished. In one of these, Cruz, as an executive assistant to a wealthy financier, moonlights as a prostitute to raise cash for her father’s medical bills and who should come calling as her first trick, but her boss? It’s enough to slap one’s forehead with an audible “Duh!!!!!” The groan-worthy ironies do not stop there, but by the time Almodóvar has arrived at this point (Cruz hangs up on her employer’s sex calls, then phones him early the next morning to report how distraught her family is over the lack of options in her dad’s cancer care) I’d seen enough of the movie’s parallel narratives to know that neither one holds even the slightest interest—not in plotting, certainly not in the acting, the toneless direction, the music, the cinematography. Almodóvar hires gifted collaborators, among them the composer Alberto Iglesias, the DP Rodrigo Prieto, and as the villainous boss, the distinguished Spanish actor José Luis Gómez, then inspires them to give their most mediocre efforts.

The movie’s English subtitles—it’s worth interjecting—were put together by a complete illiterate who knows zilch about punctuation. Whoever it was consistently places commas and periods outside quotation marks, when any halfway decent proofreader will tell you that they MUST go inside the quote marks. (Did the New York Times critic, swooning in “Almodóvaria,” come up for air long enough to notice?)

Among the featured actors, there’s the 20-something Tamar Novas as Diego, who serves as a seeing-eye man to a blind scriptwriter who calls himself Harry Caine. Together, they devise insipid ideas for screenplays, which they believe to be irresistible. Diego is such a gap-toothed space angel, so generically cute and falsely sympathetic, that he seems marked as a candidate for an early demise, the movie’s sacrificial victim. Here, Almodóvar tweaks this vulgar formula by playing it both ways. When death appears to come for Diego, via an unintentional drug overdose at the sleazy nightclub where he DJs, I felt no sense of shock—only mild indignation at the auteur’s complete lack of taste. What Almodóvar managed to get away with in All About My Mother—the emotional exploitation over the sudden death of a young boy who, up until the moment of his demise, had been a major character—doesn’t work at all in Broken Embraces. We’re meant to be horrified when Diego collapses and is hauled away in an ambulance; and we’re meant to be moved by the plight of the blind Caine attempting to navigate his way around a hospital in search of the lad. I, for one, am so sick of the patented maneuvering by which Almodóvar yanks our collective chain that I could only respond with dulled revulsion. Diego, however, lives.

Cruz, whose character, Lena, morphs from a secretary to an actress in a movie within the movie, looks harshly lit and photographed, even in shots where she’s supposed to evince glamor. Made up to resemble Audrey Hepburn, Cruz is grotesque—it becomes that much more apparent how lacking she is. Later, in a platinum Marilyn Monroe wig, she’s almost palatable, save for the excessively applied mascara that lends Cruz a witch-like countenance.

Watching the on-set proceedings through a video monitor, the financier Martel, who has gone from being Lena’s boss to her john to her lover, loses patience with the perplexing shenanigans of movie-dom and—in the film’s most revealing line of dialogue—pointedly exclaims, “This is shit! It’s incomprehensible!” Of course, that’s how the arty cavorting about would look to a stiff, tired, business executive, yet I heard the line as Almodóvar’s cri de coeur, his hidden-in-plain-sight admission of what a bomb Broken Embraces truly is.

The lone adroit performance stems from Lola Duenas, drolly deadpan as a lip reader who imparts the most outré information in tones utterly unaffected by the words she’s translating. Gómez, for a moment, seems to come alive, seated beside her.

At 128 minutes, there’s lots of dead space in Broken Embraces, so much so that I had plenty of time to wonder, “Is this the worst film that Almodóvar has made to date? Is it really going to steal the crown from Volver, the way Volver stole it from Talk to Her, the way Talk to Her stole it from Law of Desire? Volver, as disastrous as it was, at least managed its badness in a way that felt organic to the writer-director’s level of vulgarity and incompetence. Broken Embraces doesn’t. Almodóvar spends much of the running time indulged in his Hitchcock fixation, and this is partially what slows the damn movie down so much. He’s working in rhythms that aren’t altogether his own, although they aren’t Hitch’s either.

When Lena falls—literally—the camera scrutinizes every bone in her body. There are lingering close-ups of her X-rays and MRI scans. The plight of an abused woman, however, doesn’t engage Almodóvar. He has neither empathy for nor insight into Lena’s physical suffering at Martel’s hands. She shows up at the editing suite of her director/new lover Mateo without money to pay for cab fare—she is bruised and her mouth is bleeding; the beating, though, only serves as a mere plot device, and it was at this moment that I knew with absolute certainty, if I hadn’t realized it before: Almodóvar is a worthless misogynist hack, in drag as a “woman’s director.”

Mateo and Lena take flight to the coast; they settle into a kind of bliss, which we’re already long since primed to know won’t last. Here, as in other Almodóvar films, the smug and the sinister hopelessly entwine, as we wait and wait and WAIT for whatever horrible thing will contrivedly chance along to smash the lovers’ happiness to bits and pieces. Soap operatic ghoulishness passes for a style or worldview. Prurient fascination with sudden loss and with the physical and psycho-emotional affects on the survivor’s psyche are, here but not only here, the director’s signature cards. His worst films have a leering quality, not in a hateful manner a la the overbearing David O. Russell or the rancid Wes Anderson, but in the manner of someone who has lived his entire life inside a plastic bubble and salivates over the suffering of people outside. They feel what he cannot, and so he delights in putting them on display, while, like a flaccid poseur, he enjoys “the show.”

An aerial shot of a photographic jigsaw puzzle being pieced together from spread-out fragments stands out as the single inventive use of the camera.

Finally: The movie has a couple of anti-climactic climaxes glommed on, back-to-back. In one of these, Almodóvar tries to invoke Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in a sequence of Lena’s death being played back to us on grainy video. In its own hollow way, however, the inclusion of this is more reminiscent of, and more degrading than, a similar sequence in Arthur Penn’s vastly superior Night Moves, in which a private detective repeatedly watches a fatal accident that occurred during the screen test of a young actress. Penn conveyed a sense of horror; the loss meant something to him and to the obsessive, hurt gumshoe as well. There isn’t a recognizable pulse in Almodóvar’s work; if Broken Embraces were the product of a first-time director, it would (justifiably) never have received U.S. distribution. Like Nine, and like Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear, this dud coasts entirely on the reputations of its participants. It is as if no one looked at what is actually going on, either on the page or on the screen.

House contributor N.P. Thompson lives, writes, and photo-blogs in the Pacific Northwest.