Just because Nine, which opened this weekend, sucked doesn't mean that it has nothing to teach us. For instance, it can tell us how to keep a disaster like Nine from happening again.
For those of you who don't know, Nine is based on a (barely remembered) Broadway musical of the same name which was in turn based on Fellini's classic 8 1/2. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a director who doesn't know what his next film is about and the nine women in his life each get a big splashy number to talk about him and his movie. Maybe they should sing less about this movie and more about what makes a good movie, maybe then it could learn from its own mistakes.
1. Pay Attention to Accents: This is always a big problem in a movie where English-speaking actors play non-English-speakers but are using their mother tongue. Nine is set in Italy, so everyone is presumably speaking Italian, but they're really speaking English because Americans are too lazy to shell out $12.50 to read little yellow words across the bottom of the screen (which is the same reason that all the Na'vi seem to have learned English quite quickly in Avatar). Day-Lewis uses a passable but annoying Italian accent to convey that he is speaking Italian. Penelope Cruz Spanish-inflected English sounds enough like an Italian accent that it doesn't really change much, and Sophia Loren has the benefit of being an actual Italian. Nicole Kidman is speaking like a chipmunk who got too much Botox around the lips, and Marion Cotillard's character explains she is half-French and half-Italian, but she ends up sounding like a French woman trying to speak American English without an accent and failing which, well, she is.
The worst though is Judi Dench who does what any English actor playing a foreigner does in Hollywood movies and just speaks with her natural English accent. Movie producers think that American audiences are so dumb that they just need to hear any accent and if they hear a bunch of people using British accents, they'll just think all the characters are somehow vaguely foreign, which is good enough. Just wait for this to happen in earnest during The Last Station where all the characters are Russian but sound like an affected college student who is clinging to his British accent after a semester at Oxford.
Yes, movie people, we do care about the accents, especially when they're bad. Actually, what we really care about is consistency. Get everyone to sound Italian or British or American or whatever, just get them on the same page. This babbling brook of pronunciations ends up looking as jumbled as the menu at the International House of Pancakes when we're drunk at 3am.
2. Kate Hudson Has Been Needlessly Thrust upon Us: Really, what has Kate Hudson done for us lately? Aside from Almost Famous and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, she has never made a good movies, and at least one of those good ones is still a turkey. She does a surprisingly good job singing here, but other than that, she is completely miscast for the role of an American Vogue reporter trying to seduce Day Lewis' Guido. She doesn't even look the part of a sexed-up '60s girl in Rome (January Jones did it way better this season on Mad Men). Why not give the role to some great starlet with killer pipes and really give an unknown a big break? Instead Hudson's famous lineage and paparazzi appeal got her yet another role, and we are all the worse for it. Now that she and A-Rod are no longer, it's time for Kate Hudson to go away and not come back until she proves that she can pick a role in a quality production.
3. There Is Such a Thing As Too Much Meta: People who make movies always want to make movies about people who make movies more than people who watch movies want to watch movies about people who make movies. That is especially the case here, when the tale of a director with no plot for his film leads to a film with no plot. I would place a moratorium on all movies about people who make movies, but there are some good ones—like Almodóvar's recent Broken Embraces and Altman's classic The Player—but they usually end up being a big old bore. The audience is shelling out big money for the completed fantasy. Showing us how they get made is like a drag queen whose wig is made entirely out of bobby pins and whose dick is hanging out below her skirt. Tease that hair and tuck that candy, Hollywood. We want a spectacle, not the truth.
4. We Have No Clue What Fergie Looks Like: Seriously. I could walk out of my front door and step on her toe and still have no clue that I damaged Fergie's pinky. I know what her man looks like and I know that she likes to spell and I can probably sing the entire chorus of "Fergalicious" but I couldn't pick her out of a lineup if I had to. The same thing happened in the movie. I knew she was in it and kept waiting to see which character she was, and it was only by elimination that I figured out she was the hooker singing "Be Italian." She does a great job though. Now I might even remember her face for next time.
5. The Lyrics Are Just As Important As the Tune: There are some passable melodies in Nine, but all the songs have some seriously janky lyrics. "Be Italian," the big number being used to sell the movie, barely makes any sense at all. There's even a song all about the Folies Bergère—which not even the the two seasoned theater queens sitting next to me in Midtown had heard of before. Really, a song that repeats Folies Bergère over and over is almost as bad as J. Lo's "Louboutins," perhaps the silliest and most pointless pop song in recent memory.
Cotillard's character—the director's wife—gets to sing this doozy, "My husband makes movies/ To make them he lives a kind of dream/ In which his actions aren't always/ What they seem." If I were bulimic I could give my fingers a rest and just paste the lyrics from her creatively-titled song "My Husband Makes Movies" on my toilet seat cover. They're that bad. No matter how good the signing or how catchy the chorus, we're not going to want to listen to them again if we're groaning at the lyrics.
6. Rob Marshall Can No Longer Choreograph Musical Numbers in Some Performance Netherworld: When bitching about musicals, people always say, "I hate musicals, because the people are in the supermarket and they break out in song. I can't believe that." Marshall brilliantly overcame that criticism in his Oscar-winning Chicago but setting all the performances in some great cabaret in the sky that was either the actor's imagination or a black box theater that existed somewhere between the audience's mind and the narrative on screen. That trick only works once.
Here, he sets all the musical numbers in director Guido's mind and they take place on the movie set where he is supposed to film his movie with no script. But here it doesn't work well because A) we've seen Marshall do this better already, and B) it means the songs are completely removed from the action altogether. Other than the saucy Penelope Cruz number (more on that in just a second) almost all the other songs have little direct connection to the action onscreen and are just well-choreographed distractions from the main thrust of the story, and there is about as much thrust as a whore who just had a double hip replacement.
There are only two solutions for musical movies in the future, either the songs need to be part of the narrative because they are about music—like we saw in Dreamgirls or we get week after week on Glee—or the movie needs to tell those "they don't sing in the supermarket" people to shut the fuck up. It's a musical. Busting out into song is as integral a part of the genre as meeting cute is to romantic comedies. And the "supermarket" haters aren't going to pay to see your movie anyway, so why try to please them?
7. Penelope Cruz Needs More Roles: I used to look at Penelope Cruz as a very attractive distraction who couldn't speak English very well and wasn't very talented. Time and again she has proven me wrong. Just as she did a few months ago in Broken Embraces, she manages to steal the entire movie. As Guido's mistress, she gets the best number—a sexy little romp called "A Call from the Vatican"—she looks the best, and she gives the best performance. In any other movie that would be no small feat, but here she's up against Cotillard, Dench, Nicole Kidman, Day Lewis, and Sofia Motherfucking Loren. A few years ago, we never would have thought Penelope Cruz is the one that everyone is going to notice. Her Carla goes from silly and obtuse to injured and desperate with such a believable ease it doesn't even look like she's acting. Now that we've seen this, we want her to star in every movie. No more attractive distraction, this lady is a full-blown star.
8. We're Only Watching the Credits If You Make Them Snazzy: Back in the olden days, they would show the entire credits before the first scene while everyone was held captive. Now we don't even get the title of the movie until the last frame and everyone gets up and heads for the exit before seeing who the director's second assitant is. That is unless we get some sort of bonus footage, out takes, or a nice montage to make the credits all fancy. Nine gave us a reprise of Hudson's song "Cinema Italiano" set to a collection of rehearsal footage from the musical numbers. We watched the entire thing. In the age of the DVD extra, people aren't going to sit around for just an original song and a black screen. If you want us in our seat, you're going to have to seduce us.
9. You Get Bonus Points for Being Pretty: Nine has a shitty story, some bad acting, horrible accents, and crappy songs, but I still can't shake some of its images out of my head. There's a long sequence where Guido and his muse, played by Kidman, have a tête-à-tête in a Roman palazzo at night that is just breath-taking. And the production numbers, while set in nether-netherland, are gorgeous, especially Fergie's "Be Italian," which vacillates between a sandy cabaret and a black-and-white beach. Also of note is the final sequence which brings each of the nine ladies out for a final curtain call before putting a wonderful bow on an otherwise insipid package. If your movie is so bad that we're going to have to shut our brains off in order to survive, at least make our eyeballs happy. Somehow that makes the whole endeavor seem a little bit less repulsive.