Movies about show business multiplyÂ like rabbits, and hereâ€™s a simple explanation. Not only do writers write whatÂ they know — everyone in show business finds show business (and himself)Â endlessly fascinating. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re there in the first place.Â Subsequently, they see the world through that filter, and so must we. ShowÂ business provides aÂ familiarÂ location and milieu where the usual greaterÂ themes can play themselves out: love, art, success and its evil twin flipsideÂ — failure.
Two movies about self-destructives in show business duke itÂ 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 fromÂ original template Federico Fellini,
Daniel Day-Lewis goes up against â€œCrazy Heartâ€ 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 hereâ€™s the thing. â€œNineâ€Â made for some of the best trailers ever. No arguments here.
Marion Cotillard delivers. Penelope Cruz delivers. JudiÂ Dench delivers. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. Kate Hudson delivers. Nicole KidmanÂ delivers. Sophia Loren delivers. Fergie delivers by far the strongest vocals inÂ the cast.
All the Italian accents teeter on offense; only the actualÂ Italians get it absolutely right every time. Day-Lewisâ€™ Italian accent wobblesÂ a bit; he occasionally strays into Transylvanian vampire territory, but all isÂ forgiven. Hardly a song and dance man, he gamely climbs a scaffolding and wearsÂ a very cool hat and very cool Italian suits. Heâ€™s no Marcello, but I love himÂ nonetheless. (Thereâ€™s not much dancing in the film really; posing and rapidly switchingÂ camera angles create the illusion of dance. More choreography occurredÂ in the editing suite than on the soundstage which explains the incredibleÂ trailers. Marshall is a master of editing dance to seem like more than it is.Â Kate Hudsonâ€™s number was dancier than most, evoking memories of Goldie Hawnâ€™sÂ tenure as Laugh-Inâ€™s go-go gigglingÂ girl.)
In That Corner
First-time director-writer ScottÂ Cooper has done a yeomanâ€™s job with familiar material; think â€œThe Wrestlerâ€Â Lite complete with country songs. But here are the three compelling reasons to seeÂ â€œCrazy Heart.â€ Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges. So laconic and naturalÂ that we take him for granted, Bridges adds much-married, hard-drinking,Â down-on-his-luck country singer Bad Blake to his long list of inexplicably unheralded and stellar performances –The BigÂ Lebowski, The Last Picture Show, Cutterâ€™s Way, Heavenâ€™s Gate, Tucker, FabulousÂ Baker Boys, to name only a few. BridgesÂ lives in Blakeâ€™s skin; the performance is utterly without artifice and vanity. And, asÂ heâ€™s proven before, the guy can really SING.
With all the talent amassed on thatÂ faux CinecittÃ soundstage, Rob Marshall falls frustratingly short of delivering a satisfyingÂ film. Trying to capture old ChicagoÂ lightning in a new Nine bottle,Â the same old flash and dazzle adds up to way less than the sum of its estimableÂ parts. Whoâ€™s to blame?
Certainly itâ€™s not the fault of the original sourceÂ material; Felliniâ€™s 1963 dazzler â€œ8Â½â€ scintillates, gleaming and fresh as theÂ day it was made. The black and white cinematography, even on Netflix instantÂ played on my computer screen, still thrills. The dreamscapes and memories andÂ flights of fantasy remain unrivaled. (I could have easily smacked â€œNineâ€ withÂ â€œ8Â½â€ but itâ€™s an unfair fight with a foregone conclusion. Still, if you havenâ€™tÂ watched the Fellini original in a while, do yourself the favor, and if youâ€™veÂ never seen it, well then, you have your homework for this evening.)
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I know Federico Fellini, andÂ Rob Marshall is no Federico Fellini. But I donâ€™t fault him for falling short ofÂ a giant.
Fellini was an original, a genius, and â€œ8Â½â€ looms large even in hisÂ remarkable oeuvre. Still, Woody Allenâ€™s â€œStardust Memoriesâ€ succeeded in updatingÂ the 8Â½ navel-gazing-artist-on-the-proverbial- opes franchise, proving itâ€™s notÂ always an impossible exercise in futility to follow in the footsteps ofÂ greatness. Itâ€™s hard to make a whole movie about writerâ€™s block and more thanÂ slightly ironic that the screenplay doesnâ€™t amount to much. The â€œNineâ€ scriptÂ falters a bit serving that tricky master; ultimately, the stakes arenâ€™tÂ 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. IÂ suspect the film will work far better on a small screen; some of the imagesÂ will surely resonate there, particularly the pastiche moments stolen from theÂ 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 whoâ€™s to blame for this unfortunate failure.
While â€œ8Â½â€ features some of the very best and most memorableÂ Nino Rota score of all cinema, the â€œNineâ€ bottom line is this: Maury Yestonâ€™sÂ music just isnâ€™t up to snuff. Case closed. It may have won the Tony award, butÂ the proof is in the disappointing pudding. The songs (and particularly theÂ lyrics) just plain arenâ€™t good enough to carry the day on a big screen.
The 1982 show ran on Broadway for a while, garnering awardsÂ and even a revival; like the film, its structure offers terrific showcase rolesÂ for major divas of every stripe. Onstage, Anita Morris made theater historyÂ with a cleverly designed body-stocking no one old enough to remember will everÂ forget; she and castmates Karen Akers and Liliane Montevecchi were allÂ nominated for Tonys. Performers survive and even elevate mediocre material;Â audiences and critics forgive them. We know they can only do so much to save anÂ enterprise; the force of personality and talent can only take things so far.
[*A side note: Anyone familiar with the original FelliniÂ film might wonder about whatâ€™s happened in the intervening half century inÂ Hollywood. Fergie, a gorgeous woman blessed with terrific pipes, is hardlyÂ 1963â€™s La Saraghina. Is Fergieâ€™sÂ voluptuous ripeness as close to Plus Size as weâ€™re gonna get? Are Precious andÂ Tracy Turnblad our only alternatives to model-thin? Next to her tiny co-stars,Â Fergie does look fleshier than most, but the implied message worries me moreÂ than a bit. I would like to feed the cast (and all of their caloricallyÂ challenged soul sisters of the silver screen) a meal. Their thinness representsÂ a new and dangerously unattainable standard of beauty. The female ideal ofÂ Felliniâ€™s 1962 was far more realistic and wide-ranging. Be Italian, singsÂ Fergie. Not a bad idea really.]
We know everything we need to know about Bad Blake before heÂ opens his mouth. We pull for the guy even though he disappoints and backslides.Â Weâ€™re willing to believe his lies and his promises; his personal charm andÂ essential sweetness shine through the alcoholic, womanizing haze. Itâ€™s aÂ masterful performances, subtle, wise and crackling with sublimated rage andÂ sadness. Maggie Gyllenhall plays a single mom and journalist whose relationshipÂ with Blake is the heart of the film. Sheâ€™s another wounded soul, andÂ Gyllenhallâ€™s performance is so real and easy that it may not register as theÂ powerful piece of acting it should. Â Colin Farrell surprised in a pivotal role Iâ€™ll not divulge, and it was aÂ pleasure to see Robert Duvall working without breaking a sweat. Itâ€™s a smallÂ film with modest ambitions, and it succeeds and resonates.
â€œNineâ€ may have a lot more Oscar baitÂ warming its bench, but the music in a musical is too important to overlook. Iâ€™mÂ not a country music fan, not by a country mile. But the songs in â€œCrazy Heartâ€Â were touching and furthered the story and served the piece so well that I foundÂ myself tapping my toe and thinking I just might buy the soundtrack. BadÂ Blakeâ€™s midlife crisis was more moving, better observed and appropriatelyÂ scaled than Guidoâ€™s. Two artists in crisis, two blocked writers went head toÂ head, and for me, Bad triumphed soundly over Guido. The Smackdown winner is theÂ come-from- ehind little-engine-that-could â€œCrazy Heartâ€.