Penelope Cruz, in 'Nine'

Dir. Rob Marshall
(2009, PG-13, 119 min)
★ ★ ½

Nine is a watchable and intermittently satisfying film, but I’m not sure what it’s about. It’s based on the Broadway musical inspired by Federico Fellini’s famed semi-autobiographical film . I saw a few years ago for a film class; I’m not sure I knew what it was about either.

It’s directed by Rob Marshall, who in 2002 made a much better movie musical, Chicago, which had the advantage of better material: songs like “All that Jazz” and “Mr. Cellophane” are a few steps above the tunes here, which seem to consist mostly of the lyrics “Oh Guido! Guido!” The first song is sung by Guido himself. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Guido Contini is a famous Italian director suffering writer’s block after two high-profile flops. His new film, called Italia, starts filming in ten days, but there’s no script.

From there it’s an episodic roll call of the women in his life: his wife Lucia (Marion Cotillard), his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), his lead actress Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), his mother (Sophia Loren), an American reporter from Vogue (Kate Hudson), and the mysterious prostitute Saraghina (Fergie). Each gets one song to sing about … something. Mostly they sing about Guido, though Lilli has a fun number about the showgirls she costumed in Paris, which showcases Dench’s spry exuberance. Fergie gives a terrific performance of “Be Italian,” which is about the virility of Italian men, but her entire sequence — a flashback to Guido’s childhood — is a curious non-sequitur.

They’re all non-sequiturs to some extent. An actress enters, sings her song, and for the most part exits the film, and when all is said and done it doesn’t quite add up to a story. When Nicole Kidman sings about being in love with Guido late in the film, how are we supposed to feel? We’ve only just met her. And what is contributed to the story, characters, or themes by “Cinema Italiano,” Kate Hudson’s ditty — newly written for the film — about how oh so chic Italian movies are? The songs break into the action much the way they did in Chicago, where the storytelling device made more sense, setting its numbers mostly in the imagination of showbiz-obsessed Roxie Hart. Why would Guido Contini be envisioning musical numbers from Chicago?

Marion Cotillard is a notable exception. Her Luisa is one of the film’s only fully realized characters, and is the only one, besides Guido, who sings more than one song, with the difference that hers have emotional weight, especially “Take it All,” another newly written song, in which she unleashes her anger. Guido spends the film trying to figure out what he should make a movie about. Marshall should have made one about her.