On Chicago


I remember the first time I ever saw Chicago, I totally really, really loved it. According to The New York Times review:

It’s rare to find a picture as exuberant, as shallow – and as exuberant about its shallowness – as the director Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical ”Chicago.” It’s the raw expenditure of energy and the canniness of the staging that should pull audiences in and keep them rooted. The fabulous bones of this oft-told tale have been picked over so often that there’s no flesh left on them. But Mr. Marshall and the screenwriter Bill Condon get a terrifically sweet concoction out of this fabled skeleton.

The movie, set in Prohibition-era Chicago, is tough, brittle fun – a mouthful. Mercilessly adapted by Mr. Condon, who won an Oscar for his ”Gods and Monsters” script, this ”Chicago” has a connoisseur’s appreciation of camp, which it treats as a dish best served cold. This, of course, is undoubtedly the best way to present a movie take on Bob Fosse’s digressive musical version of ”Chicago,” itself a song-and-dance spin on the 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins.

Her original ”Chicago” had made it to the screen twice, most notably as 1942’s ”Roxie Hart,” one of the finest comedies of that era. (A bit of intriguing trivia: ”Roxie Hart” starred Ginger Rogers, but it wasn’t a musical.) This new picture maintains the relentless spirit of Fosse’s blunt suavity and the breathless, black-silk enthusiasm of Kander and Ebb’s songs.

In other words, ”Chicago” is as tough as Roxie (Renée Zellweger) turns out to be. Her Roxie is on trial on a murder charge, accused of killing a man (Dominic West) who took advantage of her. Mr. Marshall’s movie makes her more of a victim initially, tumbling from a happy romp into the lurid terror of violation. His adaptation plays on the audience’s affection for Ms. Zellweger’s scrappy Kewpie-doll-with-a-heart image before exposing the knowing smirk and steel-jacketed ambition looming beneath Roxie’s dimples. The picture saves her chameleon aspect for later, turning her spunky, spiky naïf on her head: instead of spreading good will, she pimps for it. As the press coverage of Roxie’s trial grows, her own sense of self inflates; she gets hooked on cheap, easy fame.

The retread nature of the material, centering on America’s thrill-hungry, low-attention-span press and public, is undeniable. This hoary attack on sensationalism has been covered in almost every newspaper picture of the 1930’s, from ”Five Star Final” (1931) to ”Nothing Sacred” (1937). Fosse heated up the action by making ”Chicago” about predatory sex and wild justice.

Turning the tawdriness of Roxie’s murder trial into a brash campaign for fame and allure, Fosse’s ”Chicago” – which jumped from one roof-raising number to another – broadcast the crass, manipulative motives of everyone involved. The sinewy, exposed skin of the dancers provided a jaw-plummeting contrast to the cold callousness of the characters.

Mr. Marshall and Mr. Condon try something different. This movie, choreographed by Mr. Marshall, may be accused of being inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s ”Moulin Rouge.” It cranks up the temperature by flashing more thigh than Kentucky Fried Chicken, generating excitement with bullet-timed editing and brassy, hip-shaking musical numbers that openly comment on what has come before as well as advancing the story.

Dennis Potter’s ”Pennies From Heaven,” with its coldhearted Brechtian observational style, is a big influence, too. The trial and everything leading up to it are treated in Mr. Marshall’s picture like backstage preparation. It provides standard dialogue exchanges for the cast members so their beady-eyed grasping is obvious. For the eruption of the musical numbers, the movie pops inside Roxie’s head – the id-free world of her unconscious, where the songs are sung out and the dances are flung out.

Back in the real world, the competition grows between Roxie and Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) for the public’s attention and constantly diminishing concentration. Velma is a jazz baby stage performer who is also doing time and anxious about being upstaged – especially when both her life and her public profile may be at stake. Mr. Condon may have also gone back to the prefatory material that Watkins wrote for her ”Chicago,” which details a chunk of the actual history of the crimes that inspired the show.

”Chicago” was a tough movie to make. Fosse, laboring to get it done since he brought it to the stage in 1975, finally gave up on it; instead he transplanted some of the plot machinations and several of the show’s songs to the movie ”All That Jazz” (1979). His Expressionist-slink dance style has turned up everywhere but the Christian Broadcasting Network in the interim. But Fosse’s death in 1987 wasn’t enough to derail a filmed ”Chicago.” And with the exception of Wilma Flintstone, almost every female star of the last 20 years who ever sang a note – or dreamed of it – was mentioned as a possible star.

On first sight of Ms. Zeta-Jones in ”Chicago,” in her Louise Brooks wig and ruthless smile, it’s hard not to be reminded of the limping musical she was seen rehearsing in last year’s comedy ”America’s Sweethearts” with the same vocal equipment. But not since she used that martial form of Pilates to slither through a series of electronic alarms in ”Entrapment” (1999) has she shown the kind of physicality she displays here. She pumps her majestic, long legs like the cylinders of a Corvette about to redline, but always knowing exactly when to stop short of throwing a piston.

”Chicago” has become more of Roxie’s story, but that doesn’t stop Mr. Marshall from supplying its cast with moments to, as Fosse used to say, razzle-dazzle ’em. As the big-ticket defense lawyer and jury barometer Billy Flynn, Richard Gere has never been better, turning spoiled princeling arrogance into a witty revel. He splashes his winner’s juice sparingly, and the movie’s shift from acid reality to bitter, high-flying musical serves him best.


Queen Latifah, as the prison matron, has a number dripping with the honey of the young Bessie Smith. She and Mr. Gere are used for their bigger-than-life personae, and sudden pressure drops in those presences signal their duplicity. John C. Reilly is the opposite – the movie’s conscience – as Roxie’s long-suffering husband, and his baggy-pants ”Mr. Cellophane” number is rueful and angry.

”Chicago,” which opens nationally today, is also a Broadway baby’s joy, with snappy cameos of theater performers, including the lovable Christine Baranski, who seems to bring a cheering section with her. To be sure, it’s not the type of picture that lingers, and obviously some of the sting-like-a-bee editing is a mercy to Ms. Zellweger, whose float-like-a-butterfly voice doesn’t triumph over her my-left-foot dance skills.


The big finale featuring her and Ms. Zeta-Jones almost does what a jury can’t: stop them cold. Until that scene, Ms. Zellweger’s performance is alternately subtle and reptile; she can still win the day. Who would have expected Ms. Zellweger – and Miramax – to come through in a musical? And it’s one of the few Christmas entertainments to run under two hours. Who couldn’t love that?



5 thoughts on “On Chicago

  1. I LOVED this movie. Went to see it quite a number of times in the theater, and I don’t really go to the theater because of the expense of it.

    I’ve seen the play as well. This movie is a cohesive redo of the play, one that everyone can love, and it actually lets you in on the secret that it’s in Roxy’s head. LOVE IT!

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