Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on NINE

If you haven't seen it, skip the below, unless you love reading things like this before you see movies. If not, then skip it!

This is probably the most incendiary I've been, and I know I shouldn't apologize for not being nice, but I hope this doesn't come across as only snarky. There's a reason for all of it.

I'm writing a little about NINE, which I'm sure some people enjoyed, but to me was the most disappointing movie of the last decade. I'm sure that has to do a bit with my expectations, being a fan of the musical for over two decades, and also of 8 1/2. But even though I tried to scrub that from my brain and be open to a new experience, the movie that was made did nothing interesting or original, and only managed to pale in comparison to any of the pieces it might be compared to. There are many. And on any measure it fails. I know the filmmakers didn't want it compared to the originals, but since it's not succeeding as a piece on its own either, I'm going to compare away.

NINE is based on the Fellini movie 8 1/2. 8 1/2 concerns a director, Guido Contini, and his difficulty in figuring out what his next movie will be. The movie was Fellini's ninth, so 8 1/2 refers to his feeling of it being half a movie. There are the women, the critics, the church, sexuality, self-doubt. Nine, the musical, positions Contini's struggle to make a movie against the background of his philandering and refusal to grow up. From what I can see, Rob Marshall took out any of the songs that give the musical heart, and replaced everything with flash. Seemingly mis-understanding the theme of the musical, and scared to make one, he just made a boring film recycyling what he did in Chicago. And that's what makes me angry/annoyed. There are some amazing talents on the screen. They do the best they can do, but with a misguided director more interested in surface than telling story, they were sunk. I'm just going to break this down in headings, since I can't really figure out any other way to do this.

It's a musical, so let it be a musical

Marshall's modus operandi seems to be directing "unfilmable musicals" like Chicago (if one can generalize from one film). Yes, he came up with a gimmick for Chicago - a narcissist who struggles with reality and escapes into fantasy musical numbers in her head. This worked for Chicago, along with strong, heavily borrowed choreography from Fosse, and a design aesthetic from the revival. It doesn't work for NINE. It comes of as false and gimmicky. Unlike the vaudeville numbers in Chicago, NINE's numbers are actual musical pieces that move along the action and contain the real emotion of the piece. Stinkylulu pointed out when we saw it that each person's number in the first act, when it's fun for everyone, is matched by a second number in the second act when Guido's world he's juggling is falling apart. Marshall took out several of those songs, most notably "Be On Your Own", where Luisa leaves Guido (Go find some restaurant attendant/go show her how independent/you have grown; go off and live your petty fictions/full of blatant contradictions/you can't see); "Simple", where both Carla and Claudia say goodbye (Simple are the ways we come apart/simple are the ways of love...simple enough for anyone to understand/but you); and "Getting Tall", where young Guido tells older Guido that he has to grow up (Knowing you'll have no one/ if you try to have them part of getting tall). I don't begrudge him for taking them out, or at least I wouldn't have if he would have replaced them with anything besides a strip tease number from Luisa. This takes away her power and agency, and frankly, doesn't work. Cottilard is fantastic, but the number is intercut with her leaving him and telling him she can never forgive him. Both the speech and the song lose their power. I saw a Q & A with Marshall, who said he didn't think people would "buy" a standard musical so he had to figure out a way to make it believable. What he did was stifle all the songs by putting them on a soundstage, take away the imagination of the director by restricting it to one location, and cut any song that seemed a problem. I mean, in the original movie Marcello Mastraonni is wearing a sheet holding a whip and a chair "taming" all the women in his life. And you think people can't take singing? High School Musical just made billions and Glee won a golden globe for best new show. Really? If you don't want to make a musical don't make one, but don't f-ing apologize for it the entire time if you do.

Marshall isn't an auteur

This is presumptuous, but I think from what I've seen so far, it's true. Even though the musical NINE is an adaptation of movie, as a musical it's a pretty straightforward story. 8 1/2 isn't. Neither is Stardust Memories, or All That Jazz, two other movies about directors and their relationships with women, the latter a musical. Or, I would argue, another version of the director looking over his creation movies this year, Broken Embraces. Almodovar also has Bad Education, which might fit here as well. What these four directors have in common, though, is that their first impulse is film/creation. Fellini, Almodovar, Fosse, Allen all seem to work out their problems in their work. Fellini is brilliant that way. He lets his imagination have free range. He uses the camera like a telecsope, a microscope and a scalpel on himself, as well as a paintbrush and a hammer. Fosse does as well - All That Jazz is merciless.Stardust Memories I have in my head having seen it recently, and Allen references other directors and himself constantly. At the end of the film you're unsure if it's a send up of other directors, himself, or a fuck-you to the audience. What is clear, though, is that he is challenging himself formally to find something new in how he tells a story and indeed why he does. He's working it out in front of us. Nothing in NINE matches the 1:30 of quick cuts of Charlotte Rampling staring directly into the camera saying the same things in different ways. All That Jazz, which NINE has most often been compared to, is an act of a man judging himself and figuring out who he is and what his life has been. It's a mind-blowing movie, and Fosse brings all his talents to bear on it. He's merciless. And yes, there are musical numbers, which sometimes are part of the action, sometimes commenting. No one breaks into song (perhaps excepting "Everything Old is New Again"), but each song is part of the action, and nothing feels extraneous. When I was thinking about this, I figured that Almodovar is doing the same thing a bit in Broken Embraces, perhaps not working as obviously, but telling the tale of a blind director attempting to forget a lost love. It's convoluted, but within it Almodovar manages to re-film portions of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown with actors who were in the original. It's self-referential, of course, but you get the sense he's playing with the audience and our knowledge of his ouevre. With the last line, though, "The thing about a film is that you have to finish it", one wonders if he was just trying to find his way to the end of this movie and put whatever he had out there. Similarly, in Bad Education, the director within the film works in a style close to Almodovar and attempts to reconcile his past and his current work. Although some of it feels like a guessing game with him (what's true, what's not?), what's becoming clear is that any issue or emotional struggle he's having he works it out with a camera. Similar to Isherwood, he writes characters who are quite close to him, yet we're unsure what he's brought to bear from his own life and what's fictional. My point is that all the above me work out their issues in their art. The films are immediate, unsettling, entertaining, at times embarassing. And this is why they're brilliant. Why people love them. Marshall? Not taking any chances. Not working anything out. Seemingly more interested in how to make money in this genre than working anything out on film. Without that struggle, or at least the fearless spirit to try something new and out there, the story falls flat. What makes the films above work is that the filmmakers are auteurs with a point of view. I don't know that Marshall was doing anything but adapting and worrying about people seeing a musical. And that everything is as pretty as possible.
Speaking of that, where are any interesting faces? If you're going to do away with the all women gimmick of the musical, which makes it kind of wild and fascinating, then have something that reminds us of Fellini's fascination with interesting people. Or at least have fascination with something besides beauty. Was that Contini's point in this? Who he is as a filmmaker? I'm not sure they know who he is. He certainly is trying to figure that out in the film, but without using the actual medium of film to do it, the directors lost the major tool with which to make their point.

And what was that point? We're supposed to be happy that Contini can make a film again though he seems unable to have any personal relationship of any meaning? It seems a hollow story to tell. And better told and more poignant Sunday in the Park with George, if that's what they were trying to do. At least in that he's aware of what he's losing and how he can't connect and why.

I've said this before, but I had a professor say the difference between tragedy and pathos is that in a tragedy the person sees what's about to happen and is powerless to stop it. In this version, Marshall et al made Guido pathetic.


All of these people are game. I can't fault Daniel Day-Lewis. He's a great actor and he creates a character. Sadly, I can't see why any of these women would be obsessed with him. There's no spark. No warmth. He looks like a week away from rehab. And I really do like him as an actor. I just didn't get it. "Guido's Song" usually has some glee and excitement in it. Here it's all torture.

Cotillard is fantastic, but she's 15 or 20 years to young for it. We're supposed to believe that they have a long-standing relationship? First, they made him ten years older than the musical (50 instead of 40), and then cast someone who is so young they never could have shared a life together. She's great, but compare this to Roy Scheider and Leland Palmer's relationship in All That Jazz. No comparison. They were two equals who had grown up together, and knew each other's tricks. Luisa should be that for Guido. She sees him and know who he is. It gives the piece emotional depth. Why do we care if it feels like they've been married for three years and she's another starlet he married? She's brilliant at the end, but the number, as I mentioned above, feels chopped. She's great in "My Husband Makes Movies", but still didn't like the gimmick.

Hudson was good - I actually thought she did a great job, but what's this role? I thought if there was a point of view of this director and this whole piece, this character is what showed it. The whole song is about surface and clothes, and I think it's what Marshall was more interested in than the story. In the musical, Stephanie Necrophorous is critical of Contini (the trouble with Contini/He's the king of mediocrities/ a second-rate director who believes that he is Socrates....a typical Italian with his auto and biography/ a mixture of Catholocism, pasta and pornography... a superficial, womanizing, moderately charming Latin fraud....thanks to him we have boredom at the movies) to say the least. The song is intercut with Folies Bergeres. What do we have instead? Surprise! A woman who wants to have sex with him and loves Italian fashion. There are a few lines about Contini's flops in the movie, but no one is critical in a way that feels threatening, that would have brought on the crisis he's having. Especially not another woman who sees through it. Hudson was good, but it's emblematic of the miss on this.

Penelope Cruz was great--funny, sad, ridiculous in the right measure. I wish that she would have been matched by DDL. I know it's not fair to compare to the original, but just watch Sandra Milo and Marcello Mastroanni. It's brilliant. And how great would it have been, like the musical, to give Cruz a song like "Simple" to say goodbye to him? I really do love her, and she's totally game. Watch this at 7:48 for the original:

Judi Dench - great, and her number is great, but annoyingly edited, like most of the numbers. Sudden changes in the frame that are jarring. Her character is Guido's confidante, but the number feels shoe-horned, no matter how much they explain she learned her trade in Paris. It feels contrived. She's great, as always.

Nicole Kidman - I liked her. What she comes in and does is a little too easy. The relationship is unclear, and it would've been nice to see more of her. Not a singer, but done no favors by that editing job. During the most emotional moment of the song, she's being shot full body from the back in a long shot, and there's a cut right at the end to head and shoulders in profile. What? Is it possible to have a tin ear and a tin heart?

Fergie - sounds great, but why the bentwood chairs - just reminded me of Cabaret. Like the sand, but why not on the beach. And why cut "Ti Voglio Bene"? It would have been great to establish character. Another thing of being fine if you change something, but please make it better or at least as good. And give her something to do besides glower. Edited within an inch of its life, again.

I felt overall that I wanted him to create something new, and what happened instead was a pale version of both the musical and the film, so all I could do was compare. The story was uninteresting, and it felt airless overall. Sad, really. It's based on a couple of pieces I really, really love. To be fair, it's a hard musical to pull off, but he didn't do any favors by seemingly missing the point. I would have loved to see someone who had a real point of view that's not about "beauty sexy", which just gets boring. I'm officially over that in all forms.

I'm sure Rob Marshall's a nice guy, but really, really dropped the ball on this one. If I could've picked something that took some chances and made no money, or something that felt this lifeless and pandering than made no money, I would've chosen the former. Sounds harsh, but I could just feel the fear in this movie. The fear of offending or the need to please. I mean, if you're making a film you're looking to please on some level, but you're still looking for the best way to tell that story, right? Makes me appreciate All That Jazz even more.

I just keep coming back to the only way to tell this story on film is to have the filmmaker making it really working through something. Or someone adept at faking that. That's how it would work.

I so, so wanted to like this film. I think this is the biggest disappointment I've had film-wise in about ten years.

Well, maybe somebody will tackle it again. I'm not holding my breath.

And by way of apology, it's not the most awful movie ever made. I'm sure the above is a result of my expectations. There were parts I enjoyed, and individual people--I don't think it's possible for me to hate Cruz, Cotillard, Dench, and company. I just didn't expect flat. A woman I met who liked it said "well, I just like musicals." I said "Well, I do, too, I love them, actually, and that has nothing to do with my not liking this." And I have no problem with glitzy and fun. It's just upsetting to see something with depth have the depth removed, and to no worthwhile effect. IMHO.

Saw it twice by the way.

Okay, now that that's done, I can move on.


StinkyLulu said...

So many interesting ideas wrassling here. And, with the comparison to Broken Embraces, I find myself again wondering what movie might Minghella have made?

Elizabeth said...

Incredible review. My thoughts: Fellini's 8 1/2 is my favorite movie, perhaps of all time; I hate musicals in general; I love, love, love Daniel Day Lewis; I hated Chicago because I hate musicals and cabaret even more than musicals. My adulation of DDL and Fellini are just not enough to make me go see this movie. And now that I've read your review, I am so, so glad that I didn't. (and Almodovar might be my favorite living filmmaker at this point -- he's as spiritual and soulful and joyful as Fellini)

Tani said...

Thank you so much for this! I've been trying to put my thoughts on this film into words ever since I saw it, and have not been able to do so as coherently as you.