Movie makers place themselves on a pedestal next to messiahs, politicians and rock stars—people who are forgiven (or even loved) for their sins. Sometimes they deserve it. Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) doesn’t. Neither does director Ron Howard. Yet both approach their latest projects with audacity, yet no reason to exist. Contini was once a major force—right around the time when he married his muse Luisa (Marion Cotillard, excellent). His last few films were flops and the industry is clamoring for him to make another—pressing him so hard, in fact, he starts shooting in days but still hasn’t written the script. Instead, like a petulant child, he decides to go into hiding with his latest mistress (a wild and bawdy Penelope Cruz), but his entourage tracks him down by sunset. Seamstress Judi Dench, star Nicole Kidman, and Vogue reporter Kate Hudson are desperate for the genius to create. We aren’t. To us, he’s just a selfish child with too many decades and artistry removed from his originator, Federico Fellini. Fellini modeled Guido on himself. That version of the truth was shaped by his own 8½, then reshaped again to fit the stage before being slapped here. Where Fellini dared us to race alongside his imagination, Howard is thuddingly cautious. He’s so worried about audiences resisting the fantasy of musicals, he has to set all of his ballads not just in the singer’s head, but on a stage inside their head as if to say, “Don’t worry, folks! People aren’t really singing their feelings—this is theatrical!” The best number, “Be Italian,” belongs to Fergie who allegedly packed on pounds for her 6 minutes as the whore Saraghina. Boy are those curves worth every bite—Howard shoots the female figure with awe and every breast, leg and hip is so statuesque, it could have been carved in marble. Less thrilling is what passes for a lesson: the idea that every great man deserves forgiveness if he keeps creating his art. Call it the Polanski defense. And boy does it feel cheap.