- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

Most men would kill to have in their lives the women Guido Contini has in his. They range from the ethereal Nicole Kidman to the earthy Penelope Cruz, from the sassy Kate Hudson to the stately Judi Dench.

Yet Maestro Contini, as the revered filmmaker played by Daniel Day-Lewis is known, doesn’t appreciate his luck. Bereft of ideas but unable to lose himself in his work as his life spirals out of his control, he finds these women more maddening than inspiring.

“Nine” is based on the musical that was itself based (loosely) on Federico Fellini’s great film “8 1/2.” It’s a bit of a bizarre beast, a contemporary big-numbers Broadway show that celebrates, even venerates, 1960s Italian neorealism. As shot by “Chicago” director Rob Marshall, this wild ride is a lot of fun - as long as you realize you’re not watching one of the master’s movies.

The film opens with Contini, a beloved director not unlike Fellini himself, being interviewed as he’s about to embark on an ambitious new project after several flops. He talks about how filmmakers dream and then, with difficulty, try to capture that fleeting thing on celluloid.

“Sometimes if you’re lucky, very lucky- and I have been lucky sometimes -the dream flickers back to life again,” Mr. Day-Lewis’ Guido pronounces in Italian-accented English.

It’s a deep thought, but the spell is broken immediately with another question from a journalist: “What’s your favorite pasta?”

It’s Rome 1965, where one of the most glamorous figures, a thin, aging director, loves women, both on and off the screen. He’s so obsessed by them, in fact, that he titles his new film “Italia” and vows to explore his country’s women in all their complexity.

Yet Italian and non-Italian females alike give him trouble.

His French wife (Marion Cotillard) is an actress he met on set but shutters away as his muse by telephone. His Italian mistress (Miss Cruz) is hot stuff but refuses to be bottled up. His dead mother (Sophia Loren, looking good but given little to do) and an older sexpot from his childhood (Stacey Ferguson, better known as Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas) still haunt his thoughts. An American journalist (Miss Hudson) is one sexy stalker, but his leading lady and muse (Miss Kidman) is virtually unreachable. And his costume designer (Miss Dench) is alternately sympathetic and scorching. “You just have to say yes or no,” is how she sums up his exalted job.

“Nine’s” script, by the late, great Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin, is more thoughtful than you’d expect from a glitzy musical, exploring love and loss, inspiration and consternation, and much more.

There’s nothing unconventional about the way it’s staged, however.

This is a stage musical transferred to the big screen, and the numbers look exactly as they might on Broadway, with the leads backed by an array of attractive dancers. (Be forewarned: There are a lot of buttocks and fishnet stockings in this film.) The songs are mostly high caliber, but there are a few duds musically and lyrically - though not in the singing.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better cast in any film this year. Mr. Day-Lewis is mesmerizing, as always… and he can sing. He throws himself headlong into everything he does, and a musical is no exception.

However, it’s Miss Cruz who steals the film - seriously sexy and absolutely jaw-dropping when she struts her stuff in her showcase number, “A Call From the Vatican.” Miss Cotillard and Miss Kidman are wonderful actresses, but they’re wasted here. Mr. Day-Lewis is in character with an Italian accent, though the others speak in their own. It works for those whose nationalities match their characters. Miss Dench’s doesn’t seem to, but she’s forgiven with a saucy number (“Folies Bergere”). This is the only film this year that rhymes “derriere” with “Folies Bergere.”

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