Directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall
Screenplay by Bill Condon
Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on
the musical play "Chicago," directed and choreographed
for the stage by Bob Fosse
Starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones
and Richard Gere, with Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine
Baranski, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs and Colm Feore
Rated PG-13; 125 minutes; Released by Miramax Films
I know that I shouldn't let the ghosts of past stage and
movie musicals obscure my vision when reviewing the new movie
musical Chicago, but memory is funny that way. Long
after I've forgotten the name of my third-grade teacher or
where I carefully hid the safe deposit box key, I'll recall
the sight and sound of firecracker Bebe Neuwirth, she of the
legs up to here and the voice like a honeyed buzzsaw, putting
her inimitable stamp on the part of Velma Kelly in the late
1990s stage revival of Chicago. She was, in a word,
fabulous, and anyone who has only seen her on TV and in the
movies has seen but the tiniest fraction of her talent.
But back to Chicago, the movie. I almost wish I hadn't
seen the excellent stage revival (it's still running, at Broadway's
Ambassador Theatre) because I might have enjoyed the movie
more. As it is, despite flashes of fun and even some sparkles
of brilliance, this Chicago plays more like Peoria.
The main problem is one of miscasting. No, I'm not talking
about Richard Gere, though I had my doubts that he could pull
off the singing, tap-dancing and general bravado of super-shyster
Billy Flynn. But Gere has been able to tap into the joy of
playing somebody who revels in his own rottenness. He was
convincingly shark-like as a lawyer in Primal Fear
several years ago; it seems to be a good part for him. His
beady-eyed, vaguely rodent-like face has sharpened into the
perfect profile for a legal eagle who's also a rat.
The bigger problem is Renée Zellweger as murderess
Roxie Hart. Zellweger is a charming actress who excelled in
both the high and low comedy aspects of Bridget Jones'
Diary. She also brought a touching bewilderment to the
harsh satire of Nurse Betty, playing a flyover-country
housewife who believes she's a character in her favorite TV
soap opera. But in Chicago, she seems intimidated by
the singing and dancing she's required to do, and her discomfort
extends to the non-musical "book" scenes as well.
(Roxie was created, in the original mid-1970s stage version,
by musical comedy legend Gwen Verdon, and re-created in the
revival by Ann Reinking-large toe shoes to fill.)
It's not that she doesn't create a character per se; it's
that Chicago, in all its forms, requires not so much
characters as larger-than-life personalities. It's always
been structured as a meta-musical, commenting on the musical
form as a way to make its satirical points (about corruption,
the media's insatiable hunger for sensation and the big lie
that being famous will cure all of one's ills.) As such, its
characters have even less substance than those you'd find
in a more traditional musical; they can't learn and grow because
they're puppets with attitude, not even paper-thin people.
To make up for this deficit, this musical requires performers
strong enough to not just fill but overflow the stage, or
Zellweger's character, Roxie Hart, is a two-timing dreamer
who has been eagerly cuckolding her doltish husband Amos (John
C. Reilly). When her lover (Dominic West), who Roxie hoped
would get her into vaudeville, not only tries to leave her
but, worse yet, reveals his complete lack of showbiz contacts,
Roxie pumps him full of lead.
She's soon carted off to the Cook County Jail, presided over
by "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah) and sharing a cell
block with Velma Kelly, one half of a song-and-dance sister
act who has, with one double homicide, turned herself into
both a widow and an only child. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who
does have some musical comedy background, plays Kelly without
a lot of variety (she's mostly just pissed off), but at least
she seems to realize that she's in a musical. A musical is
no place to be shy and retiring, and Zeta-Jones gives her
all in the "I Can't Do it Alone" number.
There's nothing technically wrong with Zellweger's singing
and dancing, but there's nothing that's terribly exciting
about them either. And she plays Roxie so passively that it's
hard to buy her hunger for stardom, which is her main motivating
force in the screenplay by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters).
Roxie isn't very smart but she is cunning, but Zellweger plays
her as too much of a softie. Possibly director Rob Marshall
wanted a contrast with Zeta-Jones' hard-as-nails Kelly, but
the two don't strike the catty sparks off each other that
Zellweger's Roxie is not supposed to be that talented (the
joke is that she becomes briefly famous for her gunplay, not
her singing skills), but it's no fun to watch somebody actually
be untalented. This is another conundrum of the musical genre.
You could say it's a cheat in Cabaret, where Liza Minnelli
plays a character who is supposed to be a second-rate chanteuse,
one who has slept her way into a star spot at a sleazy nightclub.
Uh-huh. She's freakin' Liza Minnelli at her peak, singing
her little lungs out (whether you like her or not, the woman
was undoubtedly a volcano of talent). Part of the joy in her
Cabaret performance was having the actress dare the
audience to believe she was untalented, while simultaneously
knocking our socks off.
Condon and Marshall also make a strategic error in making
virtually all of the musical numbers part of Roxie's fantasy
life. This seems smart at first: it avoids the "Julie-Andrews-bursting-into-song-on-an-Alp"
problem that movie musicals have struggled with since the
dawn of sound-that "real people" don't just start
singing for no reason. It's why so many movie musicals have
a showbiz background; it at least gives a vague reason why
the characters are always tra-la-la-ing and kicking up their
heels. The other alternative is to do what Baz Luhrmann did
in Moulin Rouge: make the whole movie into a big musical
number, removing it from any kind of "reality."
Or you can do what Bob Fosse did so successfully in Cabaret:
put the musical numbers in a showbiz venue but make the rest
of the movie fairly realistic.
But in Chicago, if all these numbers are taking place
in Roxie's fantasy life, why do they all look so similar?
Why do so many take place in a darkened theater, with dramatically
colored backlighting outlining the dancers' figures? Why is
there so much choppy editing getting in the way of someone
just singing a good Kander & Ebb song or doing a dance
number? By the time John C. Reilly dons sad clown makeup to
do the should-be-surefire "Mr. Cellophane" number,
I was suffering from sunlight deprivation.
And it's not like the "real" scenes aren't stylized:
the drab grays of the non-musical portions of Chicago
are as much a creation as the rain-slicked streets of last
year's Road to Perdition. Marshall was probably harking
back to the tough Warner Bros. melodramas of the 1930s, and
even to such Chicago antecedents as The Front Page,
but if everything is stylized, the fantasy song-and-dance
elements seem like just another dream.
Chicago is hardly the worst movie to get a best picture
nomination; it's probably not even the worst musical to receive
that honor. But for people who love musicals, it's a decidedly