Rob Marshall's flawed but frequently dazzling Nine is a hot-blooded musical fantasia full of song, dance, raging emotion and simmering sexuality. We get to watch British acting dynamo Daniel Day-Lewis be Italian as Guido Contini, a genius director of the swinging Sixties (ciao, Federico Fellini) struggling to put the movie in his head up on the screen. That movie concerns the women in his life — mother (Sophia Loren), wife (Marion Cotillard), muse (Nicole Kidman), mistress (Penélope Cruz), reporter (Kate Hudson), colleague (Judi Dench) and whore (Fergie). With an indisputably gifted actor playing ringmaster to such feminine life force, what's not to like? You could argue that Nine, a 1982 Broadway hit spun off from Fellini's own 1963 psychodrama, 8 1/2, and revived in 2003, was never the equal of its source. But Maury Yeston composed a score of surpassing beauty. The challenge for Marshall, following his Oscar-winning Chicago, was to bring another hallucinatory musical to the screen without repeating himself or dimming the material's blazing, untamed theatricality.
By my score card, Marshall hits more than he misses. Those who hated his music-video editing in Chicago will hate it here. He errs by cutting three great songs ("Getting Tall," "Be On Your Own," "The Bells of St. Sebastian") for three inferior ones. "Cinema Italiano," sung by Hudson, is a tacky, overproduced misfire. He also shortchanges the influence of Catholicism on this man-child, and keeps Guido's nine-year-old alter ego too much in the shadows. Otherwise, his work is visionary and electric. And the script, by Michael Tolkin and the late, much missed Anthony Minghella, is uncommonly witty. Guido begins the film at a press conference telling reporters that to talk about a movie is to spoil its mystery. So I won't intrude except to say that Day-Lewis (who replaced an exhausted Javier Bardem) handles his two songs in high style and acts the role like the maestro he is, even if he looks as Italian as Big Ben.
The women are smashing. Kidman tosses off her big number ("Unusual Way"), but Fergie sells hers ("Be Italian"). Dench is a sassy delight. Cruz does wonders as the mistress, sizzling in a rope dance ("Who's afraid to kiss your toes, I'm not") and going on to break your heart when Guido breaks hers. Best of all is Cotillard as the wife, baring her soul in "My Husband Makes Movies" and her body in a new number ("Take It All") that lets her throw the bum out. Cotillard, beautiful and bruising all at once, is perfection. As Marshall gathers his cast together for a finale with cinematographer Dion Beebe, costume whiz Colleen Atwood and production designer John Myhre working at their highest capacity, Nine fires on all cylinders. As Guido sings, "What's a good thing for if not taking it to excess?" Prego.