This musical version of Fellini's classic 8 1/2 stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido Contini, a famous Italian filmmaker who must begin shooting his ninth movie in just about a week. The catch is that he has no script, and no idea what kind of story he wants to tell. An international celebrity, Guido's day-to-day life involves confronting fanatical fans, pestering paparazzi, and lovely ladies willing to throw themselves at him -- and all the hedonism just adds to his lack of creativity. In order to find some inspiration, Guido thinks back on all the women who have mattered to him. As he becomes lost in daydreams about the prostitute who took his innocence (Fergie), and remembering his deceased mother (Sophia Loren), he shuttles between having sex with his mistress (Penélope Cruz) and trying to be a decent husband to his wife (Marion Cotillard). As the pressures mounts, Guido begins to face the painful truth about himself -- and in so doing may find a reason to keep working.
For a hit stage musical, Nine is utterly bereft of memorable songs. The lyrics and the music are nondescript, neither helping us learn more about the characters, nor compelling us to hum them later. That said, there are two performers who manage through sheer force of will to make their numbers work. Penélope Cruz is beautiful, sexy, and understands how to seduce the camera -- advantages she illustrates to great effect in her first big number, which amounts to little more than a very high-end burlesque dance. She's also good in her scenes with Day-Lewis as they cavort in a hotel room -- their erotic playfulness brings to mind his earlier rapport with Lena Olin in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
As good as Cruz is, Marion Cotillard walks off with the whole picture. When her character finally confronts the habitually straying Guido, she brings a forcefulness and an emotional clarity both to her showdown with him and to the accompanying song -- she unleashes a passion missing from the rest of the movie; these are the only moments in Nine when it feels like something really is at stake for somebody.
Day-Lewis does what he can with a character that's poorly written. The central drama in the film comes down to the question of whether Guido will be able to find the his muse again, but we never get to know him well enough as an artist to really care -- we're not sure why he's a director, we're only sure that he's a celebrity. Add to that the unfortunate similarity his singing voice here has to Jason Segel performing the Dracula tunes in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and you're left with the uneasy realization that Rob Marshall drained all the excitement and talent out of one of the most dynamic actors in movie history.
All of the movie's faults could be forgiven if Nine offered some insight into the psychological makeup of Guido, but it's such a relentlessly facile, surface-oriented affair that it's hard to imagine anybody would want to see this rather than 8 1/2, or Bob Fosse's autobiographical musical reworking of the same material in All That Jazz. Those movies are alive with the joys of love, sex, cinema, music, and dance -- they serve up vivid examples of why some artists must cannibalize their own lives to make their art. Nine, however, is dead on arrival.