Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a film director whose work is much loved all over the world, but especially in his native Italy. However, the anticipation for his next movie is at fever pitch and he has not written a single word of the script, with filming supposed to be beginning in less than two weeks. He dutifully attends press conferences and charms the journalists while evading all questions about what precisely the effort will be about, mainly because he does not know himself. To complicate matters, his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz) wants to see him and he cannot deny her, which his wife (Marion Cotillard) must not discover...
Director Rob Marshall had enjoyed a huge success with the big screen adaptation of musical Chicago, so it was natural that he would want to replicate that hit with another Broadway success. He attempted that with Nine, the American version of the Italian musical based around Federico Fellini's 8½, but this love letter to cinema as it was presumably intended to be fell very flat with audiences, and in spite of a cast of Oscar winners nobody was very interested in seeing it. It's not as if Chicago was very much different in its ambitions, but somehow nothing here clicked, with the result a wearisome and turgid experience.
Even those who loved the stage production found it hard to get behind what Marshall had done here, complaining he had cut too many of the songs and having issues with the presentation. It's not as if all those actresses playing the women in Guido's life were a dead loss, and they were all evidently very pleased to be strutting their stuff and belting out the tunes, but it was all to curiously little effect. At the heart was a problem in Day-Lewis's offputting and mannered performance, difficult to warm to and not helping that his character was hopelessly self-absorbed and unconvincing as the great artist he was built up in the script to be.
The writers were not especially bad at what they did either: Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella (to whom the film is dedicated due to his untimely death during production) had much-lauded works in their respective filmographies, yet they never got a handle on the material here. Nobody did really, with the comparisons the film was courting to Fellini a bad idea, unavoidable of course, but inevitably coming up short when he had made so many classics and Nine missed his particular style by miles. If anything this was overproduced within an inch of its life, with everything ornate, flamboyant, sights set on the grand emotions, and none of it satisfying in spite of the strenuous efforts of all concerned.
Guido's worrying over his upcoming project simply did not translate to an engaging story, and the fact that he was feeding the aspects of his life into this non-existent screenplay he was labouring over failed to make him too sympathetic either. There were interesting parts that threatened to command the audience's attention, such as the idea that as an artist Guido was exploiting those who loved him all for the sake of his calling, but this turned to a wallow in self-pity rather than something more incisive and vital. Making the numbers as essentially fantasy sequences in his mind did a disservice to the original as well, as if the film lacked the courage to offer them as straight, traditional musical stylings, but in truth it did not help that in these hands none of the songs stood out as anywhere near the showstoppers they seemed to think they were; if anything, they sounded samey. Good for those who liked to see famous actresses looking glamorous, but precious little amusement otherwise.