If there's a lesson to be learned from Nine, it's that writer's block is not a great subject for a musical. In Rob Marshall's spangly movie version of the lavishly bombastic 1982 Broadway show itself adapted from Federico Fellini's 1963 art-film landmark 8 1/2 Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous Italian film director who, in 1965, is preparing to shoot his ninth motion picture. But he's in the grand throes of an existential midlife crisis, and though he's trying to devise a way to put that bewilderment on screen, he's incapable of moving forward. He dithers and pouts, but he never does anything. There's a naggingly abstract quality to his cosmic angst.
Guido's life spins around seven bedazzling women who are all obsessed with him: his demure wife (Marion Cotillard), his saucy-neurotic mistress (Penélope Cruz), his doting mother (Sophia Loren), his loyal costume designer (Judi Dench), his sex-bomb leading lady (Nicole Kidman), a Vogue reporter (Kate Hudson), and a mysterious spirit from his boyhood (Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas). Each of them gets to do one big number (the wife gets two), and when the songs are going on, Nine at least has a pulse. Yet this musical, to my ears, hasn't aged well. The melodies tend to cluster into cliché hooks (there's a lot of honking burlesque, and too many faux-'60s-Italian carnival-of-life showstoppers), and Marshall's staging lacks the thrilling unity he brought to Chicago. The numbers, while lively, remain cluttered and stage-bound.
The women, however, are spirited and sexy. Cruz performs a mock bump-and-grind with real heat, and Fergie, as an oh-so-Fellini-esque beach drifter, turns herself into a wild electric siren. If only the lyrics weren't so awful! Cotillard, a lovely presence, is martyred by having to sing such gems as ''My husband makes movies/To make them he lives a kind of dream/In which his actions aren't always what they seem!'' No wonder Day-Lewis looks like he's having stomach trouble. He spends most of Nine as a haunted spectator, and you want to tell the guy to lighten up. The movie Guido is trying to dream doesn't look like much fun, and neither is Nine. C