Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 famously opens with a fantasy sequence in which protagonist and Fellini stand-in Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is stuck in traffic, looking desperate for some sort of escape. He’s hit a creative dead end with his latest project, and the gridlock has crept into his dreams where—at least for a few blessed seconds—he can take to the air and fly. Maybe Guido should have dreamt himself into a musical, a genre in which escape is only just a song-and-dance number away. So why does Nine, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of a 1982 Broadway musical derived from 8 1/2, feel like such a joyless trudge, particularly when compared to Fellini’s vibrant original?
True, Fellini provides a tough point of comparison for anyone, but maybe Nine should have stayed on the stage, where it could benefit from having a medium all to itself. In Nine, director Rob Marshall, who fared much better with Chicago, does a pretty good job of aping the look and feel of the film’s inspiration in the non-musical sequences, but comes up curiously short in the largely imaginative musical numbers. No scene in which Penélope Cruz writhes around in her underwear can be called unsexy, but Cruz’s big number remains alarmingly unsensual in spite of all the flesh on display. That Maury Yeston’s songs simply aren’t that memorable doesn’t help.
Cruz plays the mistress of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), an acclaimed director unable to get beyond the title of his latest project: Italia. Instead, when not bedding Cruz, he retreats into memory and recalls the women who inspired him, from his late mother (a largely wasted Sophia Loren) to an almost-feral prostitute (Fergie, who, tellingly and distressingly, has the film’s best musical sequence). Like Fellini, Marshall uses this structure to break with reality, but he never comes close to the wild abandon of his inspiration, and he offers little to compensate for remaining earthbound. Day-Lewis is fine, if overly glum, as the lead, and Marion Cotillard is even better as his oft-neglected wife. But the characters never find much room to breathe between songs that mostly stop the film when they should push it along, and spell out motivations instead of developing characters. The new song “Cinema Italiano,” performed by Kate Hudson, is the worst offender: It feels entirely inessential instead of just mostly superfluous, and actively poor instead of, like the film around it, shockingly forgettable.