Movie review: ‘Nine’: La vita is still dolce

Al Alexander

It’s no 10, but “Nine” is a solid 7 on the musical scale. But I’m not sure that will be enough to strike a major chord with ticket buyers at a time of year when box-office competition is most fierce. Home video seems a more likely stage for Rob Marshall’s rendering of the Tony-winning ode to all things Italian. That’s also where its flaws will be more forgivable and possibly less noticeable.

Even there, though, “Nine” will probably still resemble a loosely plotted burlesque show more than a full-bodied Broadway production. But it will afford you the advantage of being able to fast-forward through the clunky moments, such as when Kate Hudson (sorry, Yankees fans) reveals herself to be the runt of a litter of Oscar winners and nominees.

Her fey voice and clumsy gyrations while blindly “singing and dancing” her way through “Cinema Italiano,” one of three new songs composed for the film, are the stuff of nightmares.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have stood out as the sore thumb if her well-decorated co-stars, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Marion Cotillard and especially Penelope Cruz, weren’t so sexy and dynamic. And yes, that includes Dench, who, God bless her, isn’t afraid to insert a little va va voom into “Folies Bergere.”

Heck, even Daniel Day-Lewis acquits himself well as the de facto leader of this impressive ensemble. Who knew he could sing? Marshall, obviously, who performed similar miracles with Richard Gere in “Chicago.” Day-Lewis may not look Italian, but he speaks Italian in the way he grooms and postures himself as a charming playboy with escalating personal and career issues that threaten to suffocate him.

As Guido, a celebrated film director living in Rome in the early 1960s, Day-Lewis is superb at projecting his character’s desperation as he prepares to make his ninth film, “Italia.” Purists may quibble that Day-Lewis is not Italian, but neither were Raul Julia or Antonio Banderas, who played Guido in the musical’s original run on Broadway in 1982 and its revival in 2003, respectively. But you can’t deny that Day-Lewis holds your attention and earns your empathy, even though he’s playing a selfish cad.

Yes, Guido loves the ladies, be they his wife (Cotillard), mistress (Cruz), muse (Kidman), mother (Loren) or best friend and confidant (Dench). He even holds a soft spot for his first prostitute, played with pizzazz and plenty of fiery zing by Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas), whose passion makes “Be Italian” the production’s most memorable and hopelessly catchy tune.

It, like the rest of the songs, was written by Maury Yeston, who fell in love with Federico Fellini’s masterpiece “8½ ” when he was a young Yale professor in the 1960s. The story of a celebrated filmmaker (played by Marcello Mastroianni) suffering a creative block struck him as fodder for a musical, so he teamed with Arthur Kopit, who wrote the book.

Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”) and Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) were brought in to adapt Kopit’s scenario to the screen, and while they succeed at opening the story up by taking to the streets and suburbs of Rome, they fail to break up the piece’s episodic structure.

It not only limits the narrative possibilities, it also limits Marshall’s stable of stars to a single song (two for Cotillard). Like planes on a runway, they line up to take their turns in a one-and-done succession, before reappearing in the grand finale.

This, of course, negates any opportunity for character development, although you’d be surprised how much mileage these terrific actresses can get out of one song.

This despite Marshall undermining them at every opportunity with the sort of quick cuts that are better suited to a music video than a musical. It’s also a bit off-putting that every number performed by the women appears as if a stripper choreographed it.

It’s degrading, but I cannot deny that the sight of Cruz seductively sliding down poles and curtains attired in skimpy lingerie is a definite turn-on. As is Fergie, flaunting her cleavage in all its glory.

Fellini would have loved the bevy of big breasts and taut behinds, too. He also would have liked the dream-like fantasies Guido is prone to as he fights to find inspiration, as well as an escape from the demands of his women.

What he might not like is the lack of a thread to draw all the spectacle and eye candy together into a cohesive whole. Nor would he appreciate the simplistic way it depicts the joys of Italian cinema.

Yet, even though “Nine” may fail as art, it definitely succeeds as entertainment. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that what movies are really all about?

The Patriot Ledger

NINE (PG-13 for sexual situations.) Cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judy Dench, Sophia Loren, Fergie and Kate Hudson. Directed by Rob Marshall. 3 stars out of 4.