Nine Complicated Embraces (Weekly Links)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law ARE Holmes and Watson

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Sherlock Holmes. “Really kind of missing the point.”

Nine.

By Robert Horton

Looking at the newspaper ads for “Nine,” the splashy musical, I am missing something in the crowd of credits at the bottom. I see the names of the casting director and the music supervisor, but there’s no mention of Federico Fellini.

Fellini’s 1963 film “8 1/2” merely provided the premise and characters found in “Nine,” but never mind. Perhaps it’s kinder to leave the late Italian director out of this travesty.

“Nine” was made into a Broadway musical in 1982, a show that has been considerably worked-around for the screen. But its basic idea is still much as Fellini had it: a famous filmmaker, Guido Contini, is suffering a severe case of writer-director’s block over his next project. The sets are built, the money’s in place, and the actors are waiting—but there’s no script, and we watch as Guido stumbles dazedly through a few days of sex, cigarettes, and memories.

As “Nine” re-imagines it, Guido, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, “imagines” various musical numbers in a vast movie studio where his next film will supposedly be shot. I guess this is director Rob (“Chicago”) Marshall’s way of avoiding the phenomenon of characters breaking out into song in an otherwise realistic scene, which modern audiences supposedly can’t handle. His approach might have worked, if the numbers weren’t so garishly conceived.

In the film’s more everyday sections, Guido juggles his timidly suffering wife (Marion Cotillard from “La vie en rose”), his lavishly suffering mistress (Penelope Cruz), a hot-to-trot journalist (Kate Hudson), and, eventually, his star (Nicole Kidman).

Once in a while he also fantasizes scenes with his late mother (Italian legend Sophia Loren—who else?) and recalls a boyhood encounter with an earthy prostitute (Black Eyed Peas songstress Fergie, a credible piece of casting).

The re-creation of the 1962 milieu is sometimes pleasing (Guido’s car is nice, anyway), but much of the movie—especially the stuff representing his imagination—looks weirdly trashy. Almost every woman in the movie is dressed, at some point, like a stripper doing a pole dance.

For a while it’s kind of interesting to watch how Marshall and his lead actor are going to approach the material. Unfortunately, Daniel Day-Lewis, who can be electrifying when the role fits his chameleon-like approach, makes Guido seem more vacant than blocked.

A comparison between Day-Lewis and Marcello Mastroianni as the same character in “8 ½” gives a handy difference between an actor and a movie star: Day-Lewis’s incredible technique can’t fill in the personality of this passive character, while Mastroianni simply breathed it, flawlessly.

The presence of six Oscar winners (Judi Dench is in there too) isn’t enough to carry the day. And comparing this movie to Fellini isn’t even necessary: “Nine” is rickety enough to collapse all on its own.

It’s Complicated. “Well-designed interiors and well-designed comic situations.”

Broken Embraces.

By Robert Horton

With its opening scene, in which a blind writer seduces the hot young woman who has just helped him cross the street, “Broken Embraces” warns you to expect just about anything.

In a film by Pedro Almodovar, that’s the only course of action. The Spanish director, whose steady output has included “Volver” and “Talk to Her,” returns here with a typically stylish drama that folds neatly (maybe too neatly) into his previous work.

That blind writer is a former filmmaker now working (since the accident that blinded him) under the pseudonym Harry Caine; he’s played by Lluis Homar. Harry is haunted by the accident and its circumstances, which happened 14 years earlier. The arrival of an obnoxious young director, who calls himself Ray X, sends Harry into detailed flashbacks about the past. I mean it as a compliment when I say the actor who plays Ray X, Ruben Ochandiano, is perfectly horrid in the role.

Flashbacks, long ones, get us into Harry’s world as a successful film director, and his intense relationship with an actress, Lena (Penelope Cruz). They worked on a movie, “Girls and Suitcases,” the excerpts from which make it look more than a little like Pedro Almodovar’s breakthrough picture, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Lena has her tangled story, too. For a variety of heart-tugging reasons, she had become the paid companion of an extremely wealthy man (Jose Luis Gomez). Other characters flit around the story, notably Harry’s longtime assistant (Blanca Portillo). We can tell she’s been serving at his beck and call all these years, and probably nurses a combination of loyalty and hostility that would come with sacrificing her own personality to the great genius.

Almodovar is always good with those kinds of peripheral characters, the precisely-drawn, neurotic types. And his customary design sense is here too, his great eye for colors and patterns that stop just short of being crazy.

He’s given another luscious role to Penelope Cruz, who starred for him in “Volver.” She really seems like a movie queen from the 1960s, which is probably how Almodovar wants her to come across.

For all that, “Broken Embraces” has an underwhelming quality that makes it seem like more of the same from this director. (I can never remember the plots of Almodovar’s films enough to tell one from another—and I like his movies.)

The story in this case might have come from a glossy melodrama of the Fifties, but diced up in a new way. Maybe I’ll remember it when his next movie comes out, maybe not, but it certainly is absorbing for two hours.

A Single Man. “How much it respects George’s devastation.”

The Young Victoria. “Frump time is over.”

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. “The world’s gone mad, I tell you.”

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