Nicole Kidman and Daniel Day-Lewis in NINE
(© The Weinstein Company)
Nicole Kidman and Daniel Day-Lewis in NINE
(© The Weinstein Company)
The problems of a famous Italian film director with writer's block and too many women in his life might seem like less than a hill of beans. But in Rob Marshall's film version of the Broadway musical NINE, the plight of Guido Contini has surprising heft -- thanks in large part to an intensely committed and moving performance by star Daniel Day-Lewis. Indeed, despite Marshall's background, from choreographing Broadway's Cabaret to directing the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago, the film ultimately succeeds more on the dramatic level than on a musical one.

Varying in plot, structure, and score from the Tony Award-winning 1982 show -- as well as its original source material, Federico Fellini's classic film 8 1/2 -- NINE maintains a strong focus on Guido, who has run out of ideas just days before shooting his latest film. Of course, it can be hard for him to create, since most of his energy is devoted to dealing with the relationships with the many women in his life, most notably his devoted if frustrated wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his sex-crazed, high-strung mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz).

As he deals with these women in his life -- and in his mind -- who include his late mother (Sophia Loren, suitably iconic), his muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer and confidante Lilli (Judi Dench), voracious Vogue journalist Stephanie (Kate Hudson), and whore-from-his-childhood Saraghina (Fergie) -- each gets a musical number to express her point of view.

Try as he might, though, Marshall hasn't always found ways to successfully integrate them into the story, and a couple of the songs bring the movie to an almost dead halt. Most are filmed, at least in part, on a vast soundstage as if Guido is directing them, which lends them an air of sameness. In addition, some of composer Maury Yeston's best character-driven numbers from the original show have been eliminated, and even if one can see why, their absence is felt. (The lack of young Guido's songs also make the boy's presence late in the film a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with the source material.)

Whatever the film's shortcomings, NINE is a testament to Day-Lewis' singular artistry and the talented ladies who give the movie life. Cotillard, who is absolutely luminous and heartbreaking, scores firmly with "My Husband Makes Movies." (It's not her fault that she can't overcome the painful tawdriness of Luisa's newly-written "Take It All.") Cruz once more showcases her singular combination of sexual charisma and vulnerabilty, and pulls out all the stops on "A Call from the Vatican." Dench's sardonic delivery is priceless as Lilli; Fergie is a knockout with her full-bodied version of "Be Italian," Hudson has great fun with the swinging-'60s-inspired new tune, "Cinema Italiano," and Kidman, who is surprisingly underused, brings real feeling to the gorgeous "Unusual Way."

As beautiful as these many women are, the film's visual highlights are the many shots of Rome and its surroundings, which are guaranteed to make you want to hop a flight at the next available opportunity. Marshall and his team have perfectly captured the essence and style of 1965 Italy, and their influence on the worlds of fashion and cinema. It would be lovely if NINE had ended up being as groundbreaking.