In the prologue to "Nine," a director talks about how fragile movies are, always one tiny mistake away from failure.
Surely that goes double for movies like "Nine," adapted from a stage musical, one of the toughest art forms to adapt to the screen, a medium that so often fails to capture the magic of live performance.
It can be done, though - Rob Marshall had a pop success and won an Oscar for his adaptation of "Chicago," and he gives his all to "Nine," signing up an impressive roster of stars and singers, staging some gargantuan and fancy production numbers.
"Nine," though, is a much tougher nut to crack than "Chicago," which had a graspable, pulpy melodrama to pull the audience along.
"Nine" is a knotty, postmodern thing - a movie about a musical about a movie about movies. The Broadway musical took its inspiration from Frederico Fellini's "8 1/2," a notoriously dazzling and bewildering work of artistic self-analysis.
Fellini's stand-in in "Nine" is Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a past-his-prime genius of international renown about to stage an ambitious new production. He seems to have everything he needs - his lead (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer (Judi Dench) and his mistress (Penelope Cruz).
Is he forgetting anything? Oh yes, the script. He hasn't started it, and the frantic narrative (played initially for laughs) has him fleeing to a seaside hotel for peace and quiet and time to write.
He doesn't get much - he's tracked down by his mistress, his wife (Marion Cotillard), the press (Kate Hudson). Is there a gorgeous international actress Marshall fails to marshal for this musical?
It's like a pole-dancing showdown, and Cruz seems to get the better of things until Fergie shows up to roll around half naked in the surf to sing about sex.
She's great, but movies will never be as good at this as live shows, because good and even great singing is not remarkable when it's recorded. (It's only remarkable when it stinks, like Pierce Brosnan in "Mamma Mia.")
And "Nine" does not have the advantage of an upbeat narrative. It becomes a movie about failure, and finds its truest expression in the performance of Cotillard, who sings ruefully about Contini's abuses in the service of his art - excusable when the art was good, not so excusable now that it's bad.
"Nine," in the end, ends up proving Contini's point about the delicate nature of movies, how easy they are to kill. "Nine" is expensive and slick and impressively large, but it's emotionally remote, and Contini is off-putting without being complex.
It's not often that you can say Day-Lewis is miscast, but he's too gaunt and dour for this role. Even his accent is wrong. One of the songs begs us to "Be Italian," but Day-Lewis doesn't seem capable of that.
He sounds, and looks, like someone from Transylvania.