Movies about show business multiply like rabbits, and here’s a simple explanation. Not only do writers write what they know — everyone in show business finds show business (and himself) endlessly fascinating. That’s why they’re there in the first place. Subsequently, they see the world through that filter, and so must we. Show business provides a familiar location and milieu where the usual greater themes can play themselves out: love, art, success and its evil twin flipside – failure.
Two movies about self-destructives in show business duke it out this holiday season and most likely in the upcoming awards season as well.
As Guido Contini, a few degrees and almost five decades removed from original template Federico Fellini,
Daniel Day-Lewis goes up against “Crazy Heart” Jeff Bridges, a country singer
songwriter a few years past his sell-by date. Both men are wracked with self
doubts and self destruction, and we watch them struggle.
In This Corner
Okay. So here’s the thing. “Nine” made for some of the best trailers ever. No arguments here.
Marion Cotillard delivers. Penelope Cruz delivers. Judi Dench delivers. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. Kate Hudson delivers. Nicole Kidman delivers. Sophia Loren delivers. Fergie delivers by far the strongest vocals in the cast.
All the Italian accents teeter on offense; only the actual Italians get it absolutely right every time. Day-Lewis’ Italian accent wobbles a bit; he occasionally strays into Transylvanian vampire territory, but all is forgiven. Hardly a song and dance man, he gamely climbs a scaffolding and wears a very cool hat and very cool Italian suits. He’s no Marcello, but I love him nonetheless. (There’s not much dancing in the film really; posing and rapidly switching camera angles create the illusion of dance. More choreography occurred in the editing suite than on the soundstage which explains the incredible trailers. Marshall is a master of editing dance to seem like more than it is. Kate Hudson’s number was dancier than most, evoking memories of Goldie Hawn’s tenure as Laugh-In’s go-go giggling girl.)
In That Corner
First-time director-writer Scott Cooper has done a yeoman’s job with familiar material; think “The Wrestler” Lite complete with country songs. But here are the three compelling reasons to see “Crazy Heart.” Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges. So laconic and natural that we take him for granted, Bridges adds much-married, hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck country singer Bad Blake to his long list of inexplicably unheralded and stellar performances –The Big Lebowski, The Last Picture Show, Cutter’s Way, Heaven’s Gate, Tucker, Fabulous Baker Boys, to name only a few. Bridges lives in Blake’s skin; the performance is utterly without artifice and vanity. And, as he’s proven before, the guy can really SING.
With all the talent amassed on that faux Cinecittà soundstage, Rob Marshall falls frustratingly short of delivering a satisfying film. Trying to capture old Chicago lightning in a new Nine bottle, the same old flash and dazzle adds up to way less than the sum of its estimable parts. Who’s to blame?
Certainly it’s not the fault of the original source material; Fellini’s 1963 dazzler “8½” scintillates, gleaming and fresh as the day it was made. The black and white cinematography, even on Netflix instant played on my computer screen, still thrills. The dreamscapes and memories and flights of fantasy remain unrivaled. (I could have easily smacked “Nine” with “8½” but it’s an unfair fight with a foregone conclusion. Still, if you haven’t watched the Fellini original in a while, do yourself the favor, and if you’ve never seen it, well then, you have your homework for this evening.)
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I know Federico Fellini, and Rob Marshall is no Federico Fellini. But I don’t fault him for falling short of a giant.
Fellini was an original, a genius, and “8½” looms large even in his remarkable oeuvre. Still, Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” succeeded in updating the 8½ navel-gazing-artist-on-the-proverbial- opes franchise, proving it’s not always an impossible exercise in futility to follow in the footsteps of greatness. It’s hard to make a whole movie about writer’s block and more than slightly ironic that the screenplay doesn’t amount to much. The “Nine” script falters a bit serving that tricky master; ultimately, the stakes aren’t high enough to warrant the huge musical numbers and attendant operatic angst. Guido! Guido! Guido! What works onstage doesn’t translate to the big screen. obviously. I suspect the film will work far better on a small screen; some of the images will surely resonate there, particularly the pastiche moments stolen from the Fellini original. Or you could just rewatch all the trailers.
So. I don’t blame Rob Marshall. He was just revisiting a well. A reasonable mistake.
Nope. I know who’s to blame for this unfortunate failure.
While “8½” features some of the very best and most memorable Nino Rota score of all cinema, the “Nine” bottom line is this: Maury Yeston’s music just isn’t up to snuff. Case closed. It may have won the Tony award, but the proof is in the disappointing pudding. The songs (and particularly the lyrics) just plain aren’t good enough to carry the day on a big screen.
The 1982 show ran on Broadway for a while, garnering awards and even a revival; like the film, its structure offers terrific showcase roles for major divas of every stripe. Onstage, Anita Morris made theater history with a cleverly designed body-stocking no one old enough to remember will ever forget; she and castmates Karen Akers and Liliane Montevecchi were all nominated for Tonys. Performers survive and even elevate mediocre material; audiences and critics forgive them. We know they can only do so much to save an enterprise; the force of personality and talent can only take things so far.
[*A side note: Anyone familiar with the original Fellini film might wonder about what’s happened in the intervening half century in Hollywood. Fergie, a gorgeous woman blessed with terrific pipes, is hardly 1963’s La Saraghina. Is Fergie’s voluptuous ripeness as close to Plus Size as we’re gonna get? Are Precious and Tracy Turnblad our only alternatives to model-thin? Next to her tiny co-stars, Fergie does look fleshier than most, but the implied message worries me more than a bit. I would like to feed the cast (and all of their calorically challenged soul sisters of the silver screen) a meal. Their thinness represents a new and dangerously unattainable standard of beauty. The female ideal of Fellini’s 1962 was far more realistic and wide-ranging. Be Italian, sings Fergie. Not a bad idea really.]
We know everything we need to know about Bad Blake before he opens his mouth. We pull for the guy even though he disappoints and backslides. We’re willing to believe his lies and his promises; his personal charm and essential sweetness shine through the alcoholic, womanizing haze. It’s a masterful performances, subtle, wise and crackling with sublimated rage and sadness. Maggie Gyllenhall plays a single mom and journalist whose relationship with Blake is the heart of the film. She’s another wounded soul, and Gyllenhall’s performance is so real and easy that it may not register as the powerful piece of acting it should. Colin Farrell surprised in a pivotal role I’ll not divulge, and it was a pleasure to see Robert Duvall working without breaking a sweat. It’s a small film with modest ambitions, and it succeeds and resonates.
“Nine” may have a lot more Oscar bait warming its bench, but the music in a musical is too important to overlook. I’m not a country music fan, not by a country mile. But the songs in “Crazy Heart” were touching and furthered the story and served the piece so well that I found myself tapping my toe and thinking I just might buy the soundtrack. Bad Blake’s midlife crisis was more moving, better observed and appropriately scaled than Guido’s. Two artists in crisis, two blocked writers went head to head, and for me, Bad triumphed soundly over Guido. The Smackdown winner is the come-from- ehind little-engine-that-could “Crazy Heart”.