Once in a while you should see a movie for reasons other than the way a director has ambitiously attempted to remake a classic.
This dazzling re-staging of Federico Fellini’s autobiographical “8-1/2”, directed by Rob Marshall, written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, has lots of potential but its context makes it an oddity, the cinematic equivalent of a knock-off Gucci bag with the style, the swagger, the oomph but whose seams, on closer inspection, are wonky.
It suffers from being set in 1963, the same as Fellini’s film (cars, landline phones, references to Germans and World War 2). In 2009, the references don’t carry the same significance, the same background-setting weight, especially the costumes which make the film more a set nostalgic piece than the story of a fabled director, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), hobbled by director’s block, whose life merges into his art – and vice versa – as he has a crisis of conscience and creativity. Marshall seems to be too besmitten with Fellini – it’s the artistic equivalent of every artist, one way or another, having to deal with that pesky Picasso – to reinterpret the film instead of just re-creating it.
The dream sequences, done in black in white, are static; they don’t flow like the product of one synapse-flash to the next; they look rehearsed. The film has the feel of something monumentally staged instead of monumentally improvised, which is the way both Fellini and Contini actually worked. This in turn destroys the flashbacks’ attempt to show how Guido’s past seamlessly informs his present endeavors.
Having said that, there is much to recommend about the film. The casting of Daniel Day-Lewis offers a bit of inspiration. His dark, brooding good looks, surprisingly impeccable Italian accent, taut, wiry body (irregular meals, insomnia, chain-smoking) create the perfect frame on which to drape with disheveled panache those absolutely bitchin black suits. And the way he tumbles about in a stooped-over creative sclerosis that far-too-well approximates madness easily conveys the connection between creative genius and insanity not to mention the way an artist incorporates every shred of his life into what he’s making, and the seeming irreparable cost (health, marital, financial) in doing so.
His muses are equally well-chosen. His Mamma (as in Mamma Mia!) Sophia Lauren; his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard); his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), his leading lady/muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his costumer/confessor Lilli (Judi Dench), the surprisingly sexy carnivorous reporter Stephanie (Kate Hudson): individually they bristle through the shards that border his conscious and subconscious mind: sexy, alluring, coy, madonna-muses with huge appetites for life and for him. Especially Dench who plays a perfect patient though firm “M” to Day-Lewis’s Daniel Craig James Bond.
The problem with the film, though, is the problem with Dench’s look: she’s dressed like she’s 21 but she looks like she’s, well, older than that. As the general story of a clearly brilliant director who tries without success to reign in his giddy Id, it’s a thematically sound movie. But the look of it, as spectacular as it is, gives the film a patina of desuetude. Were it staged in a more contemporary setting, such a reinterpretation would have provided a more contemporary, convincing, and accessible feel. The way the movie comes off is as more of an homage than a celebration. Because it’s too wedded to its era we look at it as we might look at something in a museum: gorgeous, well-installed, perhaps even didactic, but not necessarily relevant.