Sometimes, you hear about a film project and it’s an absolute dream. You line up a prestigious director, decorated cast consisting of award-winning actors, throw it a big budget and slot it for a prestigious holiday release, in anticipation of big box office and critical hosannas translating into a slew of show-business awards. And then sometimes it goes terribly wrong.
In 2008, plans were finalized for the film version of the Best Musical Tony Award-winning play Nine. It seemed to be a natural fit for a film project. The original musical was based on Federico Fellini’s classic movie 8 ½. One of the plays the original musical beat for the Tony, Dreamgirls, was adapted into a highly successful film version in 2006. Nine was meant to join the burgeoning renaissance of movie musicals, which includes not only Dreamgirls but also Moulin Rouge!, Hairspray, the Best Picture Oscar winner Chicago and Mamma Mia!, which became the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK. Nine’s glorious cast included Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Dame Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren, plus nominee Kate Hudson and Grammy-winning singer-rapper Fergie. The project was helmed by Rob Marshall, who shepherded Chicago to roaring success. It had the backing of The Weinstein Company, with an incredible track record of box office and Oscar winners dating back to 1992. And a sensational trailer that debuted at Cannes amidst a flurry of publicity to exhibitors and ecstatic advance word:
So why did the project fail? One could easily blame the intense box office competition at the time the film went into wide release. The blockbuster Avatar appealed to all demographics and became a cultural event, and the reboot of Sherlock Holmes, it could be argued, had siphoned the more mature audience that was meant for the sophisticated Nine. One might make the case that its failure was also owed to Up in the Air, the acclaimed dramedy that was also attracting the same crowd. Had an overabundance of films aimed at the same demographic cannibalized the audience? Sure, you could have argued that, but how does that explain why the film received mixed to dismal reviews? I was absolutely ecstatic to see the trailer in the spring of 2009, but the final project felt underwhelming when I finally caught it at a New Year’s Day matinee performance. It wasn’t from distaste for the genre, either, so that argument was out.
A word on the marginal plot, taken directly from Fellini’s original 1963 film. Movie director Guido (Day-Lewis) has director’s block and is working on his latest project following a nervous breakdown. He has no script and no confirmed cast, only a leading lady (Kidman) and some sets. His loyal costume designer (Dench) has been working with him forever and wants him to do something about his procrastination. Heck, the whole movie is two hours of procrastination, set to music. He’s been cheating on his wife (Cotillard) with longtime mistress Carla (Cruz), and both come to the town where he’s filming the movie. An American journalist (Hudson) has started asking uncomfortable questions (he’s hiding his recent meltdown from the press). His mother (Loren) figures in his imagination, as does the town whore (Fergie) who introduced him to the mystique of the female gender in his boyhood. Nine concerns whether his wife ultimately wises up and leaves him, and whether or not the film is made. Neither question’s answer is at all consequential.