In Theaters: Nine
According to Lilli (Judi Dench), the redoubtable costume designer and major domo to famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Rob Marshall's alternately stimulating and enervatingly dull adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine, directing is a highly overrated job. What it boils down to, she insists, is simply answering a series of questions with yes or no, then surrounding yourself with lackeys who will do your bidding. What's missing in this summation, of course, is the degree of difficulty often involved not in making a decision well but in making one at all; the courage -- or, as often, arrogant folly -- it takes to have conviction in your own ideas. In deciding to adapt Nine, itself a musical treatment of 8 ½, Federico Fellini's modernist masterpiece about creative paralysis, megalomania, and indecision, Marshall must have known he'd have a lot to answer for. And while many of his choices would seem beyond reproach -- Should we get giant female stars to shake and shimmy in their underpants? Yesss. Should Daniel Day-Lewis play their dashing ringmaster? Uh, ye-es! -- it's the first and most important question that never gets a satisfying reply: Ma perche? But...why?
On paper, or more aptly on a Weinstein Company spreadsheet, it all adds up: Marshall, an Oscar-winner (for best picture, but not director) for Chicago needed another project with flash; Nine has multiple parts for women that are loaded with cinematic potential and iconic freight--combined with Marshall having led a singing-and-dancing Catherine Zeta-Jones to an Oscar, the cast would be A-list actresses, all the way. And it's set in Italy! During the Mad Men years! But what may have worked as a stage-bound reimagining flounders not as spectacle but as story once it is returned to Fellini's domain. Ironically, what Nine resembles most, and most unhappily, given its intricate source material, is a vanity project. Times nine.
The whole point of 8 ½ is the inextricably, exquisitely personal nature of its story and themes. You could try to evaluate it on a strictly aesthetic, artistic grounds (and it would still be a classic), but doing so would violate the terms the film itself sets up. The bubble of context (which would include Fellini's adored public persona as well as that of star Marcello Mastroianni) on which its solid artistic reputation rests has become part of the film's package. 8 1/2 also achieves a certain timelessness because it is so unabashedly of its time -- so monstrously sexist, so in love with the cinema and the notion of director as god; it also has a self-awareness that saves it from dating the way other such cliché-ridden material might.