Remaking Federico Fellini's epochal 1963 masterwork is not at all as heinous as it sounds: indeed, if we were to start listing films clearly influenced by Fellini's massively self-reflective pseudo-autobiographical movie about an Italian film director who can't come up with an idea for his next project, we'd even stumble across some near-masterpieces. Woody Allen had his Stardust Memories; Paul Mazursky gave us Alex in Wonderland; François Truffaut even put a Fellini joke into his magnificent Day for Night. Kon Satoshi's Millennium Actress recalls the notion of memory as cinematic moments; Charlie Kaufman's screenplay for the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation. snaps up the idea of a movie that documents the process of its own creation. And the best example of all, especially for our current purposes, is Bob Fosse's musical All That Jazz, a similarly self-lacerating portrayal of a broken-down creative genius that is such an accurate portrayal of the director's mind that Fosse managed to predict the cause of his own death.

Now, not a one of the films I just named is a remake of , so much as a personal retelling of its concepts and thematic concerns. And strictly speaking, the new film Nine is not a remake either: on paper, it's an adaptation of a 1982 stage musical with songs by Maury Yeston, and a book by Arthur Kopit with Mario Fratti's "adaptation from Italian", and this musical is itself adapted from ; though since the Fellini movie is so essentially a work of cinema, it is a fairly loose adaptation with entirely different concerns. But I will not get into all of that here, save to say that screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella are quite eager that we should compare Nine with , much more so than Kopit and Yeston were.

And it suffers badly from the comparison: for of course, Rob Marshall is no Allen, Fosse, or Truffaut. He is the middling director who created the deeply shallow prettyfest Memoirs of a Geisha back in 2005, and ruined the fuck out of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Chicago in 2002 - in this reviewer's eyes, one of the strongest stage musicals ever created, and one might despair that if he could do that, then Nine never had a chance. Although in at least one respect, it might have at least been an improvement over Chicago: like that film, Nine employs a gimmick in which all of the musical numbers are presented as the protagonist's fantasies, but at least here that gimmick is fairly well motivated by the story. Make no mistake, I still think that deep down, Marshall doesn't actually like making musicals: at least, to judge from the horribly indifferent way he puts them together, he certainly can't enjoy it all that much.

In this version of the story, international superstar director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is stuck, wondering what his next feature - his ninth - is going to be. And not in that Terrence Malick sense where he is going spend three or four years letting ideas percolate; he's only ten days away from the start of principal photography on a feature that has neither a script nor a concept, although it has already been cast with Guido's regular leading lady, Claudia Jensen (Nicole Kidman, playing an obvious Anita Ekberg surrogate). Everyone is getting right pissed at Guido, even if he is a genius: his producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) is tired of fending off the press, his costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench) is getting antsy to know what kind of costumes she needs to put together. Fleeing Rome for a small spa in the country, Guido manages to bring even more misery upon himself, inviting his mistress, Carla (Penélope Cruz), to relax with him, but when the press corp and production team alight upon the spa, Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) comes along with them, and when she finds that Carla is present, things get nasty, fast.

Torn between the movie he can't make and the women he can't understand, Guido drifts into fantasies constantly: when any of the women in his life speak to him, or when he recalls the significant women of his past, he cannot help but to think of them as a dreamlike interpretation: a splashy musical number staged invariably on the half-finished skeleton of his giant film set in Cinecittà, waiting like everything else for him to come up with an idea for what it should ultimately look like.

I'm not going to spend any energy comparing Nine with its previous incarnations, only to judge it as the film we have right before our eyes. And that film is a pretty spotty, dodgy affair, although at least it looks stupidly gorgeous. Cinematographer Dion Beebe and I, we have had our differences in the past, but there are moments - Collateral, In the Cut - where he is absolutely right on the money, and to this group we can add Nine, by far the most accomplished of his collaborations with Marshall. The amount of technical accomplishment in his work here is exceptional: here he must exactly recreate Gianni Di Venanzo's set-ups and lighting from the Fellini movie, there he must plunge nearly all of the set in absolutely black but still give it texture; here he uses atrocious amounts of grain to suggest age, there he has to design a shot that will look equally good in black-and-white or in color, as it is going to switch from one to the other in post-production. It was plainly a challenging project, and not only did he make it work, he made it work and made it beautiful.

It's a lot of effort in service to a pretty limp affair: Marshall's staging of the musical numbers - traditionally an important component of the musical - is altogether limp when it is not inane. As far as inanity goes, I would chiefly point to "Guido's Song", in which Day-Lewis jumps about on his film set like a jungle gym while there is too much cutting and the actor performs in that awful sing-speak method that Rex Harrison pioneered, for letting non-singers perform in musicals; a close second is "Folies Bergère", a manic rip-off of "Razzle Dazzle", the worst-staged number in Chicago. The limp numbers include nearly everything else, but especially Cotillard's striptease "Take It All" (a mediocre song created just for the film) and Cruz's "A Call from the Vatican", in which she cavorts about in lingerie while cooing sexily. Make your own limp pun, but if a number is meant to be sexy, it should damn well be sexy: not just a matter of pretty girls grabbing at their crotches. That's porn, not eroticism. Two numbers are at least fitfully entertaining to look at: "Be Italian", performed by Black Eyed Peas frontwoman Fergie, which is rather well edited (unlike everything in the movie; but that's what happens when you cast non-dancers. It takes a manic genius like Baz Luhrmann to make that aesthetic sing, and Marshall is no Baz Luhrmann, either), and has some bold use of sand and the color red - and here, the porn choreography actually works. The other well-staged number is "Cinema Italiano", performed by Kate Hudson in profoundly pointless role. The song itself (written for the film) is unspeakably hideous, but the energy is there even if the dancing is mostly a lot of pumping, and this is where that awesome flipping between black and white and color happens. It doesn't really make sense, but damn me, it's fun to look at.

The rest of the film is pretty much just vapid and simple: when he's not stealing from Fellini, Marshall has no ideas whatsoever, and he does an awful job getting good performances out of anyone but Cotillard, who gets two numbers unlike all the other women in the film and stands out like a sore thumb as just about the only person who can act and sing and do them at the same time. Frankly, the film Nine is a shitty, shitty musical: the numbers studded in indifferently, and indifferently assembled. And when you are making a musical, and the music fails, there's not much point to the rest, even if it is Dion Beebe and he is making it pretty. It's rather more mediocre than straight-up bad, but there is nothing about it to make it more than a nail in the coffin of the short-lived Movie Musical Renaissance of the '00s.



For more thoughts on Nine, click here for my conversation with Zev Valancy of On Chicago Theatre, where we discuss the movie and its shortcomings with specific reference to its ancestry in two far better works.