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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The old saying goes that it's virtually impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice. That doesn't stop people from trying. Take Nine, for example. You can practically feel this movie straining to be the next Chicago; they share the same director, Rob Marshall, and both have been guided from stage to screen by uber-mogul Harvey Weinstein. In each case, you'll find big stars belting out numbers from an acclaimed Broadway musical. The primary difference, though, is that Nine is more to be admired than to be enjoyed. It lacks the fun quotient of Chicago - or Dreamgirls or Hairspray or Grease, for that matter.

Both the stage musical and this film adaptation are based on 8 1/2, Federico Fellini's autobiographical 1963 classic. Maybe that's part of the problem: Nine is based on someone else's personal story, so it lacks the intimacy you'd get from simply watching the original.

Regardless, Daniel Day-Lewis (who does the worst on-screen singing since Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!) plays Guido Contini, a famous Italian filmmaking auteur who is coming off a bomb. The media wants to know what his newest project will be. He announces a title, but refuses to divulge plot specifics. That's because he has no idea what the movie will actually be about. Much of his creativity is being hindered by female problems. He's got a needy mistress (Penelope Cruz), a scorned wife (Marion Cotillard), and an elusive muse (Nicole Kidman). He is also attracted to an American journalist (Kate Hudson). Guido has to sort all of this out in order to move forward into production.

Sorting things out, of course, requires a lot of singing and dancing. The musical numbers are presented as fantasies inside Guido's head, so when his mistress calls to arrange a hook up, we see a just-barely-dressed Penelope Cruz breaking out into song while writhing around a stage. Later, when Guido remembers a local prostitute he saw as a child, she shows up (played the pop singer Fergie) to sing about how she influenced him. You get the picture. Even Judi Dench (as Guido's costume designer/confidante) and Sophia Loren (as his mother, in a spot-on bit of casting) get in on the action.

Rob Marshall and his production team have done a stellar job making Nine look and feel like a vintage piece of 60's Italian cinema. (Filming in Rome helps.) It's never anything other than gorgeous to look at. Only when you go beyond a surface level do the movie's problems appear. Characterization is notably light. Guido is nothing more than a tormented genius; one wonders why Daniel Day-Lewis chose to play someone so transparent, since the actor is best known for digging deep into three-dimensional characters. The fine supporting actresses are game but, the terrific Cotillard aside, don't get the screen time to do much. Each of them wanders in, does one big musical number, and more or less wanders back out. It's really a shame because when you have actresses like Cruz, Hudson, Kidman, and Dench, you really want to see more of them.

Penelope Cruz performs a seductive song and dance number in Nine.
The biggest problem - and the one certain to prevent Nine from ever being the next Chicago - is that it really isn't a very fun musical. I'm not saying that all movie musicals have to be light and fluffy; then again, they don't need to be so artsy-fartsy as to suck all the air out of a room either. The songs here are not particularly catchy, and while the choreography and set design are tops, they do little to elevate the almost relentlessly somber mood. Watching Nine, one gets the strong impression that it was created more with an eye toward winning awards than toward winning the enthusiasms of the audience. The only fun moments are when Cruz sings "A Call from the Vatican" (in a sultry performance certain to raise the pulse of every male viewer) and when Kate Hudson does "Cinema Italiano" in a particuarly glitzy, energetic sequence. And let me just give props to Hudson who, after a brilliant breakthrough in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, has spent subsequent years making nothing but crap. Here, she sings, dances, and exudes both charm and personality. How nice to see her come in and outshine just about everyone else.

I wish the rest of Nine had the sizzle of these two numbers. It doesn't. This is a very mopey film, one that keeps you at arms length emotionally rather than trying to pull you in. It's pretty to look at, and its pedigree is first-rate. Too bad that it just can't loosen up and stop being so full of itself. On the plus side, it has made me want to go re-watch 8 1/2.

( out of four)

Nine is rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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