Based on a 1982 Tony-winning Broadway hit, "Nine" has taken a circuitous journey to the big screen. That musical, in turn, had been inspired by Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece, "8½," which involved the febrile world of a Felliniesque director ricocheting between fantasy and memory. Any pretentiousness of that film was offset by ample portions of humor, sexiness and playful surrealism.
Alas, only the sexiness survives in "Nine," as the movie-based-on-a-play-based-on-another-movie has more in common with a Victoria's Secret catalogue than Fellini. It is Rome circa 1965, and acclaimed movie director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) is burdened by women who evidently can't get enough of his brooding solipsism. That group includes Guido's ex-actress wife (Marion Cotillard, "Public Enemies"), a needy mistress (Penélope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Guido's movie-starlet muse (Nicole Kidman, "Australia"), a costume designer (Judi Dench, "Quantum of Solace") and the ghost of his beloved mama (Sophia Loren, in a desperate bit of stunt casting).
With so many distractions, how's a guy to work? Shooting is about to begin on Guido's ninth film, tentatively titled "Italia," but the celebrated artist is paralyzed by self-doubt. He has too much to say; he has nothing new to say; he must smoke and chew gum. It's tough to determine exactly what has Guido so befuddled. It might be the excess of disorientingly quick edits employed by "Nine" director Rob Marshall ("Memoirs of a Geisha").
Whatever the cause, Guido is blocked. He darts out of a confrontational press conference, hops in his Alfa Romeo and hightails it to a resort outside Rome for soul-searching and big musical numbers.
Marshall came close to resuscitating the Hollywood musical with 2005's "Chicago," but he has his work cut out for him here. The screenplay is ponderous and heavy-handed, and it provides only a cursory portrait of the tortured artist. Day-Lewis is among our finest screen actors, certainly, but his sullen, mannered performance only makes the character's ostensible charisma all the more inexplicable.
The women in the cast aren't given much opportunity to distinguish themselves, despite the not-unwelcome abundance of fishnets and bustiers that augment Guido's fantasy life. Only Cotillard manages to wring some emotional resonance as the long-suffering wife.
Perhaps most crippling is that "Nine," for all its surface style, is a musical without memorable music. Only two songs register: Fergie (of hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas) performing "Be Italian" and Kate Hudson ("Bride Wars") as a flirty Vogue reporter warbling "Cinema Italiano." Even those standout numbers have virtually nothing to do with moving the narrative forward.
Rent "8½" instead. - Phil Bacharach