03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Is maddening.

I am a sucker for movies about the creative process. I thought Tristam Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story was one of the best movies of the recently concluded first decade of the MMs. Nine tries to take us into the genius of Frederico Fellini. It fails of course, but in failing gets full marks for trying.

But, a lot of fun. Who can dislike a movie that allows you to dream of tooling around Roma with a beautiful woman by your side in a 1960s Alfa Romeo convertible? Wearing, of course, a perfectly fitted Armani black suit and thin black tie, cigarette dangling from a world-weary lip, unkempt with a two-day beard, keeping the RPMs up as you speed shift around fountains and down narrow streets?

Curious how convertible sports cars were designed then...all looks and style, no seat belts or safety considerations. Sitting in bucket seats with the tops of heads perched just above the windscreen so the wind would blow hair back perfectly as if a fashion shoot. The better to show La Dolce Vita, Alfa speeding by the camera, handsome man and beautiful woman laughing uproariously, making all of us wish it were us. Fellini captured that Vita and caused generations of young Americans to flock to Rome to be cool, to be stylish, to imagine becoming an Alfa in a Chevrolet world.

Fellini once directed a segment of a movie in which uber hip sixties directors each did their take on an Edgar Allen Poe tale. Vadim, pedestrian. Malle, pedestrian. Fellini, genius, of course.

His segment would have fit nicely into Nine. Terrence Stamp playing a jaded English actor (no one did jaded better than sixties-era English actors) in Rome to do a Spaghetti Western. Brought there by the promise of a Ferrari convertible. After a night of debauchery (Fellini invented debauchery) faced with a washed out bridge over a ravine but needing to get to the other side... he waits.

A wasted life, a career going nowhere, drugs and alcohol, reduced from Shakespeare to a shoot 'em up; he revs the Ferrari past the red line and goes for it. Terrence perched high, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine's Alfa... the squeal of over-torqued tires, and the Ferrari is gone. The camera doesn't move. We hear no crash; we think we hear the car make it. Fellini pans down the road. Tire marks, the ravine, he pans the camera across at road level, a wire, unseen from the Ferrari, a sign hanging: Peliculo. A curious red liquid dripping from the wire, tire marks on the other side, the Ferrari stopped and idling, the camera moves close: a headless body in the driver's seat... the pan continues all the way down to the bottom of the ravine... Terrence Stamp's head... a sardonic grin still on his face.

I don't remember if a cigarette still dangled.

Nine captures Fellini's Rome with accuracy. So well that it made me want to be thirty again, in Rome, juggling affairs, famous, tortured, among beautiful women who loved me despite my faults, beautiful Italian women of earthy sexuality whose accents would arouse a centenarian... for a movie to do that, it has to be good.

But, it misses being great. The juxtaposed scenes of reality and artistic fantasy converted to musical numbers didn't really work for me. Better were those that showed how childhood never leaves men. Those first images of women, of sexuality before actuality, done by Fellini again and again in his movies... those scenes work well.

I took a friend to see Amacord in London once. She, of course, knew of Fellini's movies, but in the sense of seeing them in a film class in college. Not as a movie in a theater. We sat in the dark as a near perfect movie unreeled on the screen. When in Amacord the villagers rowed out to watch the ocean liner sail past, when the peacock stood in the snow, I looked over at her. She was transfixed. Not in London, not sitting in a theater, not among strangers or noticing her seatmate, but in Fellini's world. His childhood, up there on the screen, had completely enveloped her.

Fellini, she said, seemingly to herself as the lights went on... and, again, softly... Fellini.

That never happens in Nine. We watch but we do not lose ourselves in the movie. We fall in love for the fifth time in five years with Penelope Cruz, we remember Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge with affection, we think about Marie Cotillard's greatness in La Vie en Rose, we are in awe of the continuing career of Daniel Day-Lewis, we watch the director try to show how genius works using good and bad song and dance numbers, and at the end we have to say: it was worth it.

I wasn't sure how to write about this movie. I am still not. After seeing it I was immediately in an intense discussion about it with a beautiful woman who knows more about movies than I. She actually had, I think, tooled around Rome in an Alfa, long before I met her. A woman who can order an aperitif without seeming pretentious. She talked about Nine's too too Chicago roots and how jarring some of the music sequences were. She pointed out the ravine between idea and execution that limited the movie for her. She talked animatedly about the first time she saw 8 1/2 and how exotic its ideas were.

Ten minutes into the discussion. I realized that Nine was a very worthwhile movie experience. Love it, like it, hate it, the director put his ideas about Fellini in a musical. If I compare his success to putting an American electrical plug into a European outlet, it is just one man's opinion. Others might find the song and dance numbers a perfect way to approach Frederico Fellini.

Terrence Stamp played 'Toby Dammit' in Fellini's Spirits of the Dead. A name I use when I leave voice messages or write comments on blogs. I didn't lose my head over Nine or even my heart. But, I did stay with it to the end and I would give it a nine for trying and a ten for generating discussions among movie lovers.