Ever since Rob Marshall revitalized the movie musical with the razzle-dazzle 'Chicago' back in 2002, fans of the Best Picture winner have waited eagerly for a worthy follow-up effort from the Oscar-nominated director. First came the disappointing 'Memoirs of a Geisha' in 2005. Then 'Nine,' an adaptation of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit stage musical, arrived on screens last December. Packed with kinetic choreography (by Marshall himself), melodic songs, and a substantive story based on the classic 1963 Federico Fellini film, '8-1/2,' 'Nine' seemed destined to be an instant hit and strong Academy Award contender. Yet despite the considerable talent of a stable of sexy Hollywood felines, including Penélope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, and Stacy Ferguson (better known as pop star Fergie) – as well as two grande dames, the ageless Sophia Loren and indomitable Judi Dench – Marshall's visually arresting yet lumbering musical never comes close to meeting expectations, and ultimately ends up the kind of cinematic train wreck the film's protagonist, celebrated Italian movie director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), fears his abstract next project will become. On a scale of one to 10, 'Nine' rates far below its eponymous number, and proves Marshall isn't quite the musical Houdini we thought him to be.
Though largely unknown to mass audiences, 'Nine' nabbed five 1982 Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, and I feel fortunate to have seen the show during its original Broadway run. As performed by Raul Julia and company, the stage version oozed style, creativity, and passion as it chronicled the creative crisis afflicting the narcissistic Guido, an Italian Peter Pan whose "body is nearing 50, but mind is nearing 10." He's been coddled, pampered, and worshipped by women since he was nine years old, and continues to recklessly juggle relationships with them to his and their detriment. Though he's married to the lovely Luisa (Cotillard), a former actress whom he discovered, he fools around with the slinky, unstable Carla (Cruz), remains obsessed with his long-time muse, Claudia (Kidman), and is tempted to dally with an American magazine reporter (Hudson), all while trying to mount his next production, for which there's no story, no script, and no concept. The ghost of his mother (Loren) and his trusted costume designer (Dench) try to keep him on an even keel, but as the pressure increases, so does Guido's anxiety, hurling him headlong toward messy confrontations, painful self realizations, and a potential breakdown.
I love musicals, and wanted to love 'Nine,' but it only sporadically captivated me. Its sputtering story never really kicks into gear, despite another magnetic, finely-etched portrayal from Day-Lewis, and though its numbers possess plenty of pizzazz, they often grind the plot to a screeching halt and never allow it to regain steam. Marshall employs the same device he used in 'Chicago' – allowing the musical numbers to unfold in the imagination of the main character (in this case, Guido) – but the execution isn't nearly as smooth. As a result, 'Nine' feels choppy, like a drama interrupted by a series of flashy music videos, some of which stoke the senses, while others are painfully (and surprisingly) dull. The numbers alternately salvage and sabotage 'Nine,' acting as both respites from the inert narrative and bloated distractions that drag out an already plodding film.
Marshall, however, is a master of style, and 'Nine' is always beautiful to look at. The sumptuous sets and costumes, coupled with fluid visuals and elegant Italian locations, always keep the eye engaged, as do the glamorous female specimens on constant display. If you love gorgeous women, you need to take at least a cursory gander at 'Nine.' Ogling the shapely Cruz as she goes through a series of temperature-rising contortions in a sexy teddy during 'A Call from the Vatican' certainly titillates the senses, as does a zaftig, bosomy Fergie belting out the show's rousing, earthy anthem, 'Be Italian.' The statuesque Kidman provides a bit of cool romance, while the breathtaking Cotillard gets down and dirty with an in-your-face striptease that would impress even 'Chicago's' Velma Kelly. But it's Kate Hudson (yes, Kate Hudson) who clearly steals and stops the show with an electrifying homage to '60s chic called 'Cinema Italiano' (one of the new songs Yeston composed for the film). Her top-notch singing and dancing abilities (who knew?), high-energy delivery, and alluring presence make this one number worth the price of the disc, and something I'll replay for some time to come.
I've now seen 'Nine' twice – once in the theater and once on Blu-ray – and for me, that was two times too many. Hopefully, Marshall can rebound from this debacle (although I ask you this: Is helming the fourth installment of the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' saga a reward or punishment?) and studios won't be too leery of backing more sophisticated Broadway adaptations in the future. (Dreck like 'Mamma Mia!' doesn't count.) Of course, not every musical translates well to the screen, and 'Nine,' through no fault of the director, may merely be a victim of its own individuality. Whatever the case, as retooled by Marshall and company, 'Nine' is a lot of sound, fury, and undulation that unfortunately signifies very little.
With all the glamour and artistry on display, one would expect the transfer of this splashy musical to truly sing, but sadly the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode is almost as dull as the film itself. Though some portions are intentionally grainy to evoke a retro cinéma vérité style, the bulk of 'Nine' still looks overly gritty and a bit washed out. Exteriors and scenic shots don't pop like we expect, and intermittent softness obscures fine details. Blacks are rich and deep, but colors look surprisingly anemic, especially the red dress Cruz wears at the train station. Fleshtones appear natural and remain stable throughout, and sharp close-ups accent the distinct and refined features of the beautiful cast, but it's not enough to really stoke the senses.
Contrast errs a bit on the dark side, and though it aptly reflects the story's nature, a more vibrant look would perhaps infuse the picture with more energy. Some banding creeps into the image now and then, but edge enhancement and noise reduction are absent. Though this is certainly a serviceable high-def effort, it falls well below expectations for a film of this sort. And that's a shame.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track gives this disc a major boost, making up for the video deficiencies in a big way. From the get-go, there's a crispness of tone and purity of sound that's essential for musical films. The balanced mix possesses terrific dynamic range with seamless bass integration. Low-end frequencies are potent but not overpowering, and add marvelous weight and drive to female-dominated songs. The surrounds are also quite active, with clear atmospherics enhancing various exterior and interior scenes, while dialogue is always properly prioritized, so we never miss a word. Though there's a lot going on aurally, distortion is never an issue, and no high-end hiss creeps into this tight track. Musicals demand top-notch sound, and 'Nine' delivers on all counts, providing highly immersive, dynamic audio that perfectly complements the film.
A strong set of extras delves into many aspects of 'Nine' in a slick, engaging, albeit superficial manner, but those who appreciate the art of musicals will surely find much to enjoy in this lineup. Almost all the material is presented in high definition, so that's a plus.
A ravishing array of women and a couple of knockout numbers make 'Nine' bearable, but far from captivating. Rob Marshall tries his best, as does a cast of six (count 'em, six!) Oscar winners, but all that sweat can't grease the gears of this surprisingly clunky, emotionally distant, maddeningly uneven musical. A serviceable but unspectacular transfer dulls its Blu-ray impact, but terrific audio makes this baby sing, and a fine spate of supplements help us appreciate the creative energy expended on this disappointing project. Sadly, even fans of the genre (of which I am one) won't be able to fully embrace Marshall's latest musical, and will find themselves longing to get out of Italy and go back to 'Chicago.' Worth a rental for the stylish numbers and feminine eye-candy, but otherwise eminently skippable.