Review by Adam Blair

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 screen.

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 they should.

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 mixed bag.

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