Monday, December 28, 2009


Movie musicals these days are as rare as Westerns, and with both genres I'll run out to see the latest offering, in the hopes that they'll get it right, or better yet, add something new. Most new Westerns are awful, more along the lines of Young Guns, but occasionally you'll get something as extraordinary as The Proposition. Similarly, it seems very few people in Hollywood or anywhere else know how to make a musical anymore, but once in awhile, there might be a Chicago.

I know a lot of serious critics disdained Rob Marshall's film adaptation of Bob Fosse's stage production Chicago, but I thought it was about as good as could possibly be, considering the tricky nature of the material. In particular, many people hated Marshall's constantly roving camera and quick cutting during the song numbers, but to me it mostly worked--the mobile camera gave a sense of rhythm, the cutting was mostly to emphasize certain movements.

But Marshall's latest, an adaptation of the not particularly well-known Broadway musical Nine, is so bad it makes me wonder if Marshall has any talent whatsoever.

Where to begin? Or more accurately, where to stop? Nine is an almost total disaster, not an entertaining train wreck like Xanadu but dull, oppressive and joyless. And utterly, astoundingly pointless. Who exactly was supposed to enjoy this?

The original stage version of Nine was an adaptation of Federico Fellini's great semi-autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2, and however misguided that may seem, at least on stage its creators were working in a different medium from Fellini, and had to conjure their very own kind of magic. I've never seen the show, and have no idea if it worked, but at least it was its own thing.

But on film it all becomes literal. We see Daniel Day-Lewis wearing black suits and wearing Ray-Bans, stalking through the back lots of Cinecitta, and those of us in the audience with a working knowledge of Fellini will wonder why they bothered, and those without will wonder why the hell they're supposed to care.

And even then, it gets all the details wrong. The most obvious place to start is the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as an Italian (named Guido, no less!), but he at least gives the best performance he can under the circumstances. But few of the other cast members seem to belong in this particular time or place, and aren't given enough screen time to overcome their miscasting. Nicole Kidman--or, cruelly but accurately, the immobile remains of Nicole Kidman's plastic surgery--seems to be playing a character intended as an amalgamation of Claudia Cardinale and Anita Eckberg, but Kidman's physical presence is all wrong, and her physical presence is all she's given to play.

Or consider the brief performance by little-loved pop princess Fergie, who appears briefly as a prostitute remembered from Guido's boyhood. She sings Be Italian, the only song from the show I knew before I saw the movie. I knew it because I'd seen a performance of it (on the Jerry Lewis telethon!), and the most memorable aspect of it was that the actress, Kathi Moss, was particularly zaftig, not a scrawny little thing like Fergie. Which was the whole point, of course--she was ample and fleshy and, well, Italian, and far sexier for it. If Marshall is too timid to cast a heavier-built actress in a role that calls for it, why is he even bothering?

Another problem with Marshall's handling of Be Italian: for no apparent reason, he stages it as a tribute (or ripoff, if you prefer) to Bob Fosse's well-known Mein Herr number from Cabaret. Another song, the newly written (and indescribably awful) Cinema Italiano, is choreographed in a manner reminiscent of a number from Fosse's Sweet Charity. Why? Fosse's ghost was bound to haunt Chicago, but why invoke him here? (In the only song Day-Lewis is given to perform, he's suddenly and inexplicably wearing a fedora, and I clenched my teeth, waiting for him to slide it into a rakish, Fosse-esque angle. Instead, it just kind of falls off and is forgotten, a perfect metaphor for everything wrong with this movie.)

Such gestures only remind us that Fosse himself made his own version of 8 1/2, All That Jazz, and that Fosse went even further than Fellini, making a film based not only on his own life but his own eventual death. All That Jazz is infuriating and insanely egotistic, wildly entertaining and profoundly sad, a movie that gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. Every single frame of it is utterly alive, and so it is nothing like Nine.