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It's odd that Rob Marshall is typed as a musical director when he seems to be almost constantly embarrassed by the form, running away from genuine prolonged musical numbers like a frightened rabbit and hiding them as best as he can in the cutting room like a first-time killer clumsily disposing of the body in the nearest river only for giveaway dismembered body parts to float to the surface. Like Chicago, the staggeringly badly reviewed Nine tends to disguise its musical numbers as fantasy or dream sequences rather than embrace the format and just have people sing and dance the story and characters, leaving the impression that they could easily be edited out and not missed. That the film is a musical remake of Fellini's 8½, hardly the stuff of documentary realism itself with its constant fantasy sequences, could be seen as giving licence for such an approach if Marshall actually had the courage of the material's convictions, but he seems constitutionally incapable of presenting a musical number without breaking it up into soundbites. Like Richard Attenborough's equally misconceived and equally catastrophic screen version of A Chorus Line he even breaks up and cuts away from the numbers to have dialogue scenes running through them (Nicole Kidman's big number in particular loses most of its power from this intermittent dilution), making them particularly indigestible and half-hearted. That these dialogue scenes are incomplete themselves only makes matters worse, giving you the worst of both worlds as if Marshall were making two separate movies he had no confidence in and tried to stick them together after the fact to cut his losses. He never seems to grasp that for his blocked film director protagonist the fantasy is the reality and the reality is the fantasy and constantly clumsily segregates Guido's inner and outer life as if they don't really belong together. It doesn't help that's what's left of the score after dropping 14 numbers (the title song included) isn't particularly strong and nor, in an unwelcome throwback to the chronic miscasting of big-budget 60s musicals, are the voices of most of the cast while John Deluca's unimaginative choreography is the usual derivative identikit sub-Bob Fosse bump'n'grind and Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin's screenplay is for the most part trite and ineffectual.

As a result its pleasures are largely cosmetic. While the badly edited fantasy scenes are visually clichéd and make poor use of the same stylised set, when set in the 'real' world it's often a gorgeous looking film, beautifully recreating the mythic 60s Dolce Vita look that owed more to Fellini's imagination than reality and in a couple of scenes making appropriately epic use of Cinecitta's soundstages. At times it's so good looking that you keep on hoping that the film will get its act together and be worthy of all the technical resources thrown at it. Sadly it ends up feeling more like eye candy, as if the producers are hoping that if they throw enough stars and enough money at the screen you won't notice the film's deficiencies. Unfortunately the result is simply an occasionally awfully good-looking but frequently awfully awful film where you just don't care about anything or anyone on screen. On the plus side, modern cinema's arch-ham Daniel Day-Lewis resists the temptation to chew on the sumptuous scenery and gives a surprisingly believably Italian performance even if he can't sing, Penelope Cruz is surprisingly good for once in an English-language role, handling her big number with panache and Marion Cotillard valiantly overcomes the poor writing and Marshall's obsession with cutting away during her big dramatic scenes to give at least a semblance of humanity to proceedings. But they're small consolations in a misfire this overblown and undernourished. Nine? Nein. Here's hoping that the next time someone suggests a big-budget musical, Marshall's name and number isn't in their Rolodex.

Plentiful extras on the DVD in the way of featurettes and music videos, but unless you want to repeatedly hear how wonderful everybody is and what a genius the director is they're a particularly unenlightening case of quantity over quality.
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3.4 out of 5 stars
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