Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 12/27/02 (limited); 1/24/03 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
"We could not have done it without you!"
This one line, said during the final dance number, reiterates just how brilliant the concept of Chicago is. It’s at this point we realize—if we haven’t already—that the entire show implicates us in the cycle of criminal celebrity that has enraptured American culture and made a mockery of the justice system for far too long now, simply by finding the entire spectacle entertaining. Musicals are known for their relative simplicity, but Chicago is one of the exceptions. Sure, it abandons any trace of subtlety to get its point across, but in its complete lack of ambiguity and total submersion into the pure theatricality of a cabaret performance, the whole thing begins to pack level upon level of irony to the point that we just give up and give in. And that’s just the play. The problem with many stage-to-screen adaptations is that the movie versions simply don’t accept cinematic possibilities and turn out rather bland. Chicago is one of the most successful stage-to-screen adaptations I’ve seen, thanks to the fact that it revels in the overtly theatrical elements of the show and truly adapts to the filmed medium instead of reluctantly accepting it. Consequently, the film achieves a brilliance of its own.
In 1920s Chicago, jazz and vaudeville acts are all the rage, and for Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), fame in the spotlight is a dream she’s wanted for a long time. Before marrying her husband Amos (John C. Reilly), she was a chorus girl, but her career took an aside. Now she’s fooling around with a man who promises her the opportunity to make it big. One of their encounters goes sour when he reveals that he’s been lying to her. Roxie shoots him a few times and convinces Amos that he was a burglar and he should take the fall for her. That goes wrong when Amos discovers his wife’s cheating ways, and Roxie is taken to prison. The state announces it’ll be seeking the maximum penalty: hanging. In prison, she meets the infamous Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a dancehall star imprisoned for murdering her husband and sister after discovering their affair. The prison is run by Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), who’s willing to do favors for her inmates in exchange for some cash on the side. One such favor would include the hiring of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Chicago’s most notorious criminal lawyer without a single loss on his record. For Roxie, it could be her meal ticket to fame. Oh, and freedom, too.
Roxie and Billy go on a crusade to corrupt the system and prove that justice is blind on more than one level, and of course, we can’t help but recall other media circuses in which it seemed popularity equaled a free ride to acquittal. The trick of the material is to make us forget that Roxie is a murderer and perhaps even go so far as to begin rooting for her. In the play, she kills her lover simply because he leaves her unsatisfied, but the film version makes her slightly more sympathetic, which in a way, makes it easier to associate with her and, as a result, makes the trap easier to fall into. The end result, though, is the same; Roxie is guilty, whether or not the public or a jury sees it the same way. And she’ll do anything to clear herself. Eventually, a series of lies turns into a defense, and no one questions the story because, well, it’s in the papers. On the other side of the issue is a young, Polish girl, also imprisoned for murder. Ironically, the only thing she can say ("Not guilty") is the truth, but because she’s obviously poor and without cunning counsel, she’s left to hang. The film suggests that the onlookers to her execution are secretly enjoying it as much as they would a vaudeville act.
The film maintains the vaudeville atmosphere and concept in its song and dance numbers, which is vital to the success of the material. To achieve this without making it seem out of place, director Rob Marshall has made the musical sequences part of Roxie’s fantasies. These numbers allow for exact and biting satire about the culture of criminal fame. One sequence turns Roxie into a dummy and Billy into the ventriloquist, as a group of reporters, seen as puppets, takes to every lying word. It makes us wonder who the real mouthpiece is in the lawyer/client/media relationship. Another number turns the trial into—you guessed it—a circus. The filmmakers go all out in these sequences, beat the point to the ground, and still make them work. Marshall also choreographed the dances, which are invigorating pieces of entertainment. Take the "Cell Block Tango" number, in which murderesses recall their crimes. This is just a grand, energizing piece of composition (although one could argue it examines a double standard in the war of the sexes). The scenery and camerawork for the musical set pieces are simple, which allows the talent on display to show through. A few numbers from the show are left out, but there’s no real harm done.
The film has some unexpectedly talented performers. Renée Zellweger makes a clear choice with Roxie; she’s mousy but entirely driven when it comes to her career. Zellweger’s breathy voice is easy on the ears, but it’s her costar that really shines. Catherine Zeta-Jones does simply amazing work here. She has a strong voice and great talent for dance. Richard Gere is suitably wily as Billy, but he puts on a character voice when singing and oddly drops it during the non-singing sections. This suggests to me that the actor is either hiding a weak voice or inconsistent with his character. Even so, he does very good work here. Queen Latifah has one number, which she performs the hell out of. Then there’s John C. Reilly, who plays the only sympathetic character in the film. He’s perfectly timid and pitiable as Amos, and he has one show-stopping, very affecting number in which he displays a surprisingly powerful voice.This is a theatrical celebration of pure cinema. With its biting and timely commentary on the state of the American justice system and a series of hugely entertaining song and dance numbers, Chicago transcends the simplicity of the genre and provides a platform to instigate serious discussion on the material’s implications. It’s daring, funny, and wholly relevant entertainment.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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