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CHICAGO(director: Rob Marshall; screenwriter: Bill Condon/based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins and the musical play by Fred Ebb “Chicago,” directed and choreographed for the stage by Bob Fosse; cinematographer: Dion Beebe; editor: Martin Walsh; music: John Kander; cast: Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), Renée Zellweger (Roxie Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly), Queen Latifah (Matron Mama Morton), John C. Reilly (Amos Hart), Taye Diggs (Bandleader), Christine Baranski (Mary Sunshine), Domenic West (Fred Casely), Colm Feore (D.A. Harrison), Lucy Liu (Heiress Murderer), Chita Rivera (Showgirl); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Martin Richards; Miramax; 2002)
“The trouble is the jazzy vaudeville-like musical numbers are energetic but hardly memorable, while the story is irrelevant and seems to be there only as an excuse to go into a musical number.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” is a busty song and dance extravaganza, with just enough of a story to keep it honest as a musical drama. The trouble is the jazzy vaudeville-like musical numbers are energetic but hardly memorable, while the story is irrelevant and seems to be there only as an excuse to go into a musical number. It all seemed lacking in excitement as the main stars were miscast– Catherine Zeta-Jones was vibrant in her musical numbers but was flat in the acting department, Renée Zellweger as the clueless but ambitious headline stealer and grasping star without talent couldn’t execute the musical numbers with verve (as if to cutely prove she didn’t have talent) and failed to be winsome as a performer who can walk the tightrope between being both a glamorous persona and a calculating bitch, while Richard Gere had no business being in this musical since he can’t sing and dance–and I might also add his acting was as stiff as a board.

The film is based on the journalist for the Chicago Tribune Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1926 play about women murder cases she observed as a reporter, it was first filmed in the 1920s by Frank Urson and later filmed in 1942 by William Wellman as Roxie Hart, and in 1975 was revived as a Broadway stage musical by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. This version follows pretty much how the play was staged but without a lot of the sexy verve the late Mr. Fosse was known for. It also lacked the sparks to ignite the stage with a sense of cinematic magic, as its shallow characters gave the story no significance. I’m told that the play successfully made the characters seem like they had more depth.

It’s about two vamps, Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) and Roxie Hart (Zellweger), in the same Chicago prison trying to beat their separate murder raps while defended by the same high-paid fancy, slick and sleazy lawyer, Billy Flynn (Gere). The lawyer has never lost a case and views the world as a circus, as he makes the courtroom into one while turning his clients into celebs. The vamps achieve celebrity status for their passion murders and become more interested in getting continued tabloid publicity to further their showbiz careers than in the crimes they committed. “Chicago” is cynical about the public’s fickle tastes, showbiz and its yardstick for talent, the media’s objectivity and the fairness of the judicial system, but all it has to offer is its cynicism without showing it really means what it is saying. It’s played as a piece of silly entertainment offering a flashy musical revue showing some bare leg and is the kind of show one would expect to see in Las Vegas but as a film it does not become as enticing as the spectacular Moulin Rouge–a film it tries to emulate as the modern way to do the now seldom produced musical movies. Director and choreographer Marshall tells a little slice of the story and then goes into an elaborate song and dance number, as it becomes easy to forget about the forgettable story and just tune into the well-staged musical number and its colorful indoor sets. Marshall stages many of the songs within Roxie’s fantasies. It had other inventive pieces of film-making it based on Bill Condon’s script, but the problem remaining was that the music isn’t all that catchy.

The film opens in the glitzy year of 1929, a time of jazz clubs, bootleggers, Al Capone, Babe Ruth and Tommy guns. Velma has a song-and-dance act with her sister, but when she discovered her messing around with her hubby she erased both of them from this world and was arrested after going on solo at the jazz club. The married Roxie appears at the club the same day with her lover Fred (West), a married furniture salesman, who promises her he has connections to get her a gig there. Dumb Roxie believes him but when a month goes by and she hears nothing, she gets Fred to nastily tell her he lied about everything and is dumping her. In a passionate rage Roxie plugs him a couple of times and gets her loser husband Amos (Reilly) to say he killed the intruder to prevent a burglary. When the dense Amos finds out it’s their furniture salesman and not a burglar, he changes his story and she goes to the slammer. Later he agrees to pay the lawyer’s standard $5,000 fee to defend his heartless wife.

The prison matron in charge of the vamps is Mama Morton (Latifah–in an underwritten part tries to be a Pearl Bailey), who is greedy and corrupt. She does favors for pay, and contacts lawyer Flynn first for Velma and then for Roxie. The vamps look upon jail time as publicity time and try to keep their name in the headlines–Velma aims to continue her musical career with higher paid bookings than before her trial and Roxie hopes to advance her once unpromising chorus girl beginnings. Flynn transforms Velma into Chicago’s newest tabloid sensation. Roxie soon follows her example and he transforms her into the sweetest murderer in Chicago, as she steals the headlines from the jealous Velma. Roxie views her prison stay as if it were a stage tryout for the big time.

The film might work for those who find it both amusing and admirable to watch the three stars try to perform their musical numbers, as I sometimes found myself rooting for them to make this fluff work. But only the Welsh-born actress Zeta-Jones made it work for me, as her sizzling movements had all the pent up sex that kept me glued to her act and hoping for more of the same from the others. Unfortunately, “Chicago” seemed more suited to be a play than a film even though it tried to keep everything in MTV-like constant motion. The only thing is that all that motion didn’t allow me an opportunity to pause long enough to really enjoy what I was seeing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”