Saturday, January 02, 2010

Nine/It's Complicated


Both Nine and It's Complicated feel like relics in a year when the lo-fi Paranormal Activity was a hit and James Cameron showed us what movies could look like a century from now. These big, star-driven films - one based on an established property and the other from a "brand name" director - creak into theaters at a time of year when Hollywood is supposedly showing off its best. While neither is without charm both feel unnecessary and smack of studios throwing money at the audience.

I can't tell you how much Nine does or doesn't have to do with Fellini and 8 1/2 or with the musical on which it's based. Rob Marshall's film takes place in some ethereal movie land a little bit to the left of anyplace an actual human has ever been; it's a dream version of 1960's Italy in which everyone dresses like a model and even the raggedy pensione in which stymied director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) stores his mistress (Penelope Cruz) could almost double as the set for a Merchant-Ivory film. For a film whose cast and setting are so easy on the eyes Nine is amazingly inconsequential. (How did it work on stage?) Guido can't write his next film and spends all his time thinking over it when he's not juggling the ladies. Most of the songs are filmed against in an abstract space meant to suggest the not yet built set of Contini's new movie and are slammed into the middle of dialogue scenes. Each number doesn't advance the story so much as convey one Capital Letter idea. Carla (Cruz) is ready for sex, screen siren Claudia (Nicole Kidman) is love with Guido, and Seraghina (Fergie) is (I think) the essence of all things Italian. Only Kate Hudson's "Cinema Italiano" (a kicky, B&W music video) and the two songs by Marion Cotillard (as Guido's beleaguered wife Luisa) transcend the obvious. "My Husband Makes Movies" is a complicated realization of how Guido can never be fully in the marriage while "Take It All" is a furious kiss-off (and the best staged song). Both "Cinema Italiano" and "Take It All" were written for the movie. Marion Cotillard is the best thing about Nine, and maybe deserving of an Oscar nomination. She's the only character I could imagine having a life outside the film - Judi Dench's costume designer rings especially hollow on this score - and also the only one with a real layer of vulnerability to Guido's charms. Day-Lewis gets to display a lighter tone for once, but there isn't enough to keep him occupied here. Nine, like the film Guido can't make, is a good-looking dream that won't stay with you on waking up.

Reviewing a film based on the economic status of its characters feels a bit stale. (What is this, The Nation?) Yet it's hard to care about the romantic travails of Jane (Meryl Streep) in It's Complicated what with all the stuff on display. Jane has a magazine-ready California house and owns a gorgeous restaurant. She doesn't date, but there's no real reason why other than screenwriter's affectation. It's another Nancy Meyers tale of middle-aged love; Jane is torn between her self-absorbed ex (Alec Baldwin) and an architect (Steve Martin) who's renovating her place. Even the comic set pieces (Everbody gets stoned at the graduation party of Jane's son!) feel engineered to appeal to the mostly female audience that gabbed through the showing I attended and applauded afterwards, and the characters are to be envied rather than identified with. The rakish Baldwin and sensitive Martin roles are too-perfect compliments. Given the talent I wanted to like It's Complicated more than I did, but it's hard to care when nobody needs anything.

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