Nine

Give me a movie where people burst into song and dance for no logical reason and I'm happy ... assuming the musical numbers are good, the story isn't dull and the characters are interesting. Nine, the latest movie musical directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) has a lot of flash and dash ... so why wasn't I charmed?

Veteran screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella scripted this adaptation of a 1982 Broadway musical, which includes a few new songs. The Broadway version itself is a musical remake of the Federico Fellini movie 8 1/2. That may be part of my difficulty with Nine -- I've always found Fellini's film tiresome and interminable. I'm more of an Amarcord girl myself.

Adding music to Fellini's story doesn't change it much. Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous Italian director in the early 1960s who is two weeks away from the start of production on his next film ... and he has no screenplay and no idea what he wants to do. He tries hiding at a remote resort to brainstorm and canoodle with his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), but is soon found out by his producer and entourage, including his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), who used to be the star of his earlier films.

But Nine is really about Contini's relationships with the women in his life as he sees them, each taking a turn in the musical spotlight: his now-deceased mother (Sophia Loren), the village slut from his childhood (Stacy Ferguson, aka Fergie), the aforementioned wife and mistress, his faithful French costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), the actress he considers his muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), and a brash young American reporter, Stephanie (Kate Hudson). Many of these women are dissatisfied with the roles in which Contini has cast them.

The story serves mostly as a framing device for each character to reveal themselves through a big musical number, most of which take place on a set that Contini has devised for his still-unformed film project. But the framing device is slow and wearing, and Contini evinces little sympathy. The tired artist hiding behind dark sunglasses may work in a semi-autobiographical Fellini film, but here he lacks the energy to serve as the catalyst for a musical.

Unfortunately for a movie that is a musical, most of the singing in Nine is sub-par. A great deal of the pleasure in watching a musical is in hearing good vocal performances. The stars are all able to talk their way through the notes that aren't in their limited range, but it's like having a musical with nothing but Rex Harrison in it. The only singing that pulled no punches was Fergie's "Be Italian" number, which she belts out with appropriate gusto. The worst number is "Cinema Italiano," which feels very much out of place in the world of the film. Kate Hudson's voice sounds too jarringly contemporary, and I honestly thought this was some dated Eighties-era leftover from the Broadway musical until I learned later that it's a new song composed for the film.

I have to wonder if it's not time to return to the practice of dubbing a star's singing voice if we insist on casting non-singing big-name talent in movie musicals. We run the risk of everyone sounding like the modern-day equivalent of Marni Nixon, but if it worked for George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou, I feel it's worth a shot.

To counter the dismal singing, the acting is nearly all note-perfect. Daniel Day-Lewis does a fine Marcello Mastroianni re-interpretation. I loved seeing him with Judi Dench, and enjoy her performances in nearly everything, but admittedly she's about as French as a buttered scone. Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman (who also can actually sing) are also standouts. But the characters are written as so flat and unengaging that there's a limit to what these actors and actresses can do.

Nine is a gorgeous production, with sumptuous costumes and design, eye-catching choreography and stellar acting talent. Unfortunately, the story, the songs and the vocal performances didn't measure up to the fine trappings of the film. It's nearly two hours long, but many great musicals have had longer running times and felt shorter.