Fellini for Dummies
Actual Italian movies too inscrutable for ya? Don’t like reading subtitles? Hate that stodgy, old-fashioned black-and-white cinematography? Never fear! You can now have the flavor of Italian cinema without any of the fuss or mess! Just try Nine for that authentic faux cinema Italiano experience.
Look: Nine is to Italian cinema what Olive Garden is to Italian food. It’s culture lite. It’s Epcot Center instead of arthouse. It’s its own best satire, but doesn’t realize it. I may not always like Fellini, but this sort of airheaded, self-contradictory, bombastic fluffery is an insult to him and his art in the same way that calling Pizza Hut’s processed food product pizza is an insult to gastronomy. Eat real pizza, or don’t. Watch real Fellini, or don’t. I don’t care. But don’t parade this affrontery around and call it art.
Cripes, even Michael Bay didn’t have the balls to put forth Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as anything other than a cartoon.
Here’s the deal: Circa 1965 legendary Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis: There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York) is a genius. A genius, director Rob Marshall informs us. What’s more, he’s a tortured genius! But he’s also a little boy! A little boy still in love with his mother! Oh, the humanity! Of course, anyone with little patience for the arrogant self-involvement of men like Contini will be rolling their eyes within moments of meeting him and muttering under their breath to be given a freakin’ break, and for Contini to just get the hell over himself already.
But not Rob Marshall (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago). And not screenwriters Michael Tolkin (Deep Impact) and Anthony Minghella (Breaking and Entering, Cold Mountain) (who adapted the Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, who were in turn adapting the Italian play by Mario Fratti, who was in turn adapting, sort of, Federico Fellini’s film 8 1/2). No. They think we should like Contini… or that we should at least appreciate the torture that tortured genius grownup little boys go through. We should sympathize with him for being a spoiled rotten brat, and for abusing and misusing all the women in his life that he supposedly loves, and who inspire him. After all, the women all worship and adore him, too: they quite literally sing his praises here. Poor Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies, A Very Long Engagement), as Contini’s wife, former actress Luisa: she has to belt out what amounts to a lament for his brilliance, and how it makes him a terrible husband but a fantastic artist, and how poor Luisa just has to put up with it. Until later, when she belts out another song, a parody of a burlesque that supposes that the worst thing a man can go through is to see his wife naked in front of other men. Never mind the indignity such a thing subjects a woman to: it’s all about Guido and his pain at witnessing such a spectacle.
And poorer Penelope Cruz (G-Force, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), as Guido’s mistress, Carla: she has to prance around in an unintentional lampoon of sexiness — it’s kinda like that Victoria’s Secret commercial that Michael Bay recently directed, in fact — in an attempt to convey how insanely devoted to Contini she is, to the point of… well, I won’t spoil, in case you insist on seeing Nine, but women who do what Carla does are not devoted — they’re mentally ill.
These women and others — Judi Dench’s (Quantum of Solace, Cranford) costume designer; Nicole Kidman’s (Australia, The Golden Compass) diva; Kate Hudson’s (Bride Wars, Fool’s Gold) American journalist; Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson’s (Planet Terror, Poseidon) whore; and Sophia Loren as the mamma’s boy’s mamma — are failing to do their appointed jobs as muses to The Great Man, and he’s having a breakdown as the start of production on his next film is rapidly approaching and he doesn’t even have a script yet. This might be the most grating thing about Nine: even though it’s allegedly about all the women in Contini’s life, it’s still about him, as if the filmmakers had no idea how to make a movie about women as anything other than what they can do for a man. The movie is supposedly about how Contini cannot see these women as people, how he reduces them to stereotypes that are useful to him… but the movie does the same. The only moment that touched me here is when Guido is explaining to Kidman’s Claudia about the idea for his new movie, that it’ll be about “Italy as a myth, Italy as a woman, Italy as a dream,” about the women behind the powerful men of its story, and who they prop him up and allow them to do what they do. Contini thinks this is a compliment to women, but Claudia nails it: “I’d rather be the man,” she tells him. Nine pretends to love women, but it loves only Guido, and thinks only he is worth telling a story about.
Why is it called Nine? Who cares? The filmmakers clearly didn’t: they excised the song from the stage version that explains it all, either because they thought it was superfluous — better to leave it all enigmatically arty and unexplicable, perhaps, but not too arty — or to make room for a new song that would be eligible for the Oscars (songs not written specifically for the screen are excluded). So we get instead a horrendously evil song that Kate Hudson sings while shimmering around in a Swarovski crystal minidress — costume Oscar bait, natch — about how her journalist loves cinema Italiano and particularly Guido Contini. Oh, not the themes or the mystery or anything so ephemeral and thinky as that. No, she loves the style: the Ray-Bans at night and the skinny ties and all. And, as she had previously explained to Guido, “Style is the new content.” If the film intended that as satire, you’d never know it, because it defines the film itself.
Why evil? Because the tune is so catchy that it might have been designed to infect your brain, rendering you helpless before it, while the lyrics are so banal, so stupid, that your brain revolts while listening to them. Have you ever been physically attracted to someone you didn’t actually like? That’s the only thing to which I can liken the deeply unpleasant experience of listening to this song.
Or to watching this film. Half of me can’t help but be drawn to all the wonderful, powerful performers onscreen here — Dench; Kidman; Cotillard; Cruz; even Hudson is delightfully compelling in a way she hasn’t been before — and speculate how amazing they’d be in a story actually about their characters, instead of one propping up a character who doesn’t deserve a story of his own (or at least not the way Marshall tells it). And the other half of me is screaming in horror.