When audiences meet Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Nine, the Italian filmmaker is doing what he does best lately: making better excuses than movies. Pressed at a news conference for information about his next film, Guido actually has nothing in mind except a title. Of course, he can't admit that. • Guido answers with elliptical vagueness about the way movies "die" when discussed, and how each step of the cinematic process from inception to projector "kills" the dream a little. It's a convincing bit of malarkey that accurately explains the failure of Nine, an idea that has been "killed" too many times to breathe now.
Nine is famously based on Federico Fellini's 1963 classic film 8½, a semiautobiographical fantasy that mutated into a Broadway musical, now returning to the screen in that condition. One medium removed from near-perfection can work, but stretching the lineage any further is inherently wrong. Just ask Mel Brooks about The Producers, or Guido if he watched his own movie.
The worst mistake Nine made onstage was becoming even darker in tone than 8½. In the original, Marcello Mastroianni played a version of Fellini on a roll, a string of hits making him catnip for women, reporters, producers and fans. 8½ was an eerily exhilarating fantasy about a genius dealing with celebrity and his obsession to sustain greatness.
Arthur Kopit's book for Nine gave Guido a more severe case of writer's block, threatening his legacy, plus a more melodramatic personal life. We're not sure if he wants to succeed again. As played by Day-Lewis and his distressed tics, Guido appears finished just as Nine begins. There's nowhere we expect him to go but down, no matter how much director Rob Marshall gussies up the experience with — as one of his Chicago characters touted — the old razzle-dazzle.
Day-Lewis is, for the first time ever, the main reason why a movie doesn't work. He's the stiffest movie musical leading man since Yves Montand croaked through On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Day-Lewis possesses a serviceable voice for his lone solo number — fewer than Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas' stage load — before ceding the spotlight to beautiful women in musical numbers aspiring to stop the show.
Three of those performers manage the feat, one of them twice. Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas does a sultry Be Italian as a beach whore from Guido's youth, and Penélope Cruz sets off smoke alarms as Guido's mistress Carla with her carnal ditty Phone Call From the Vatican, displaying a voice and gams to make a thousand ships return to port after launching.
Either performance might steal the show except that Marion Cotillard gets two knockout numbers, My Husband Makes Movies and Be on Your Own, to show how effectively she emotes through song. For those few minutes, Nine finds its dramatic footing and a plot outline becomes a story.
Guido's mother (Sophia Loren) and confidant (Judi Dench) are obliged to sing and dance, neither to much admiration. Kate Hudson does a kicky, miniskirted version of Cinema Italiano — the only number reflecting the film's mid-1960s setting — that mostly reminds us that she's Goldie Hawn's daughter. Nicole Kidman poses as Guido's favorite leading lady and performs fine but too late in the proceedings to register.
Marshall uses two main locales, a seaside spa and a re-creation of Fellini's massive Cinecitta soundstages, to limited effect. That's the problem with adapting a stage production to screen; unlike legitimate theater, cinema is boundless in what it can show, where it can transport audiences.
Fellini understood that better than just about anyone. But he didn't compose toe-tapping songs or choreograph hoofers, or feel cynical about his art and women, which is what Nine is all about. By adding that "½" to its glorious source, Nine subtracts from the reason it even exists.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.