Nine isn't so much a movie as it is a collection of standalone musical numbers, strung together by the thinnest of plots. Because that plot was inspired by Fellini's 8 1/2 - one of the greatest films ever made - the narrative portions of Nine are destined to suffer by comparison. How could they not? And although some of the musical numbers are exceptionally well-staged - Penelope Cruz's sexy solo atop a giant mirror and Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson's seductive Be Italian are standouts - the numbers still play out like commercial interruptions within the context of the movie.
In Chicago, his previous adaptation of a Broadway hit, director Rob Marshall integrated the music into the film so seamlessly you couldn't imagine one without the other. When the characters started singing, the effect was always exhilarating, because the songs actually advanced the story, and the music and dancing were sensational. At the screening of Chicago I attended, the audience often applauded after certain numbers, as if they were watching live theater. That never happened at the screening where I saw Nine: All I heard were stifled yawns and uncomfortable rustling in seats (mostly, I admit, my own).
The problem with Nine - which was adapted by screenwriters Michael Tolkin (The Player) and the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and has the sort of cast for which the term "all-star" was coined - is the same problem that plagues every misfire made by talented people with good intentions: a fatal lack of emotional engagement.
Guido is a genius paralyzed by a mid-life crisis, an artist who makes the mistake of assuming his muse is linked to something tangible in the real world. The movie is set in a magical Italy where everyone speaks accented English, and the women (or at least the ones in Guido's life) are prone to breaking into song-and-dance. Among them are his mother (Sophia Loren), his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Cruz), his costume designer (Judi Dench), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), a prostitute (Fergie) and a reporter (Kate Hudson).
There's a thrill in watching so many talented actresses together in one film, but with such thinly written characters to play, Nine quickly starts to resemble a photo shoot for the annual Vanity Fair Hollywood issue. Like he did in Chicago, Marshall films and edits the hell out of the musical numbers, but Nike TV commercials look pretty cool, too.
The worst thing you can say about Nine is that the movie manages to make Day-Lewis - surely one of the most magnetic and dynamic actors on the planet - more than a little dull. Guido is charming and charismatic, and Day-Lewis has fun at playing up the character's arrogant attitude toward the press. But you never get the sense of Guido as an artist - he's not movie-crazy, the way the best directors always are - and you certainly don't like him. The same goes for this flashy, snazzy, hollow movie.