Italian for Beginners

n 02394 Italian for BeginnersNINE
Running time 119 minutes
Written by Michael Tolkin and
Anthony Minghella   
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring  Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Stacy Ferguson

To the already overcrowded list of year-end disappointments bringing 2009 to a sorry close, you can add Nine. With a legendary Broadway score; director Rob Marshall (Chicago) hoping to repeat his musical Midas touch; and an all-star cast that redefines that overused word “fabulous,” a lot of Christmas bonbons were expected from the anticipated movie version of the 1982 Broadway classic. Alas, the movie delivers thistles instead.

The original musical, based on Fellini’s largely autobiographical film 8½ and directed by Tommy Tune, was pure genius. The movie is boring, pretentious, empty, heartless, interminable, cold and as richly flavored as a hard-boiled egg. The basic premise remains the same: A stressed-out director without a single word on paper for his next film retreats to a spa for a rest cure. One by one, the female muses in his life appear among the white tiles to inspire him, dressed elegantly in black. Let the razzle-dazzle begin. But in the movie, Guido, a director with a phony accent (a hopelessly miscast Daniel Day-Lewis, about as decadently Italian as Mickey Rooney), pushes a cast of thousands all over the place: press conferences, the sound stages of Cinecittà, the Appian Way, the Fountain of Trevi, the Amalfi Coast and every historic monument in Rome. When he sings, he’s climbing scaffolds like James Bond doing chin-ups. Songs have been dropped and characters added, to no avail. There’s his long-suffering wife (Marion Cotillard); his suicidal mistress (a scantily clad Penélope Cruz); his butch costume designer (Dame Judi Dench in a wig with Buster Brown bangs the color of doggie-doo); his dead mother (a matronly and badly photographed Sophia Loren, of all people); a neurotic movie star (Nicole Kidman) in a strapless gown wading through fountains; a fat prostitute on the beach (pop diva Fergie), who tried to seduce Guido when he was 9; and enough noisy chorus lines to make you reach for a Valium.

They all sing … and sing … and sing! Covered with bling, and not always in tune. Ms. Cruz does an erotically charged number inspired by Jack Cole’s choreography for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The musical numbers all look alike, but Dame Judi belts out “Folies Bergere” better than the others, trailing a mile of red feathers. In a senseless role added to the film for no valid reason, a clueless Kate Hudson plays a trashy journalist from Vogue dancing on a runway that looks like a rock video set. Busty, porcine Fergie, beating a tambourine, leads a stage full of sluts on a stage full of sand. Sophia Loren should sue. Doesn’t Mr. Marshall know you don’t shoot a woman nearing 80 from under her chin? Because Guido is reaching back inside his brain to pull out memories, real and imagined, the movie plays leapfrog with time frames, switching from color to black and white without purpose. Onstage, there was so much glamour I couldn’t decide whom to concentrate on. In the movie, they’re so obnoxious I just wanted them to shut up and go home. The movie is busy, but in their failed homage to Fellini, they’ve lost his mystery and humor.

The fragmented script, expanded to include an army of men, now features jealous husbands, nervous producers, doctors with stomach pumps and hypocritical, autograph-collecting Catholic cardinals from the Vatican who ban Guido’s movies but secretly adore the sex scenes. The writers (including director Anthony Minghella, who died before it was finished, which might explain some of the holes) never find the words to deliver Guido from his midlife crisis and describe the detritus of his messy life. The women who swirl through his dreams would make better studies if they added up to a form of therapy, but the deadly script uses them as nothing more than props. Regrettably, none of the fury and passion that made them so memorable onstage has made its way into this loud but lifeless film spectacle. Without the necessary insight into these flamboyant women that a coherent script would provide, you end up caring about none of them. The characters strut and screech and shake their butts in a sexual faux frenzy, but remain as one-dimensional as cardboard. They knock themselves out cold, but it’s like a greatest-hits assembly of pop tunes and dirty dancing from floor shows in Atlantic City, inserted to make you forget that nothing else is going on. Nine is giddy, empty-headed and loud, but it never manages to prevent the audience from snoring. It’s a musical train wreck.