A Film Review by Michael Rankins

As big-shouldered as the city itself, Chicago is a cinematic spectacle in the old-fashioned style: loud, proud, and brassy. It eschews Carl Sandburg’s “little cat feet” for the rat-a-tat-tat of Richard Gere’s tap shoes. It’s as subtle as a Dick Butkus tackle, as substantial as fog blowing in off Lake Michigan, as spicy as the mustard on a Wrigley Field hot dog, and as shallow and disposable as the foil ashtrays in a downtown gin joint.

But, ain’t it great? The answer is a resounding, “You bet.”

In truth, Chicago is better than it has any right to be, given the potential strikes against it. Musicals haven’t fared well in Hollywood since the halcyon days before Watergate. The few scattered attempts to revive the genre have done so mostly by pushing the format beyond its natural limits — Moulin Rouge! being the most noteworthy example. Further, the musical Chicago itself is a harsh, cynical relic of those grim post-Nixonian days of the mid-1970s, a period of American history not fondly remembered for high culture. Riskiest of all, first-time feature director Rob Marshall populated his cast with actors not known for their crooning or hoofing — seriously now, Richard Gere singing? — a group whose only obvious connection to music is hip-hop star Queen Latifah. Hardly a Broadway pedigree.

None of these apparent obstacles prevented Marshall, a theatrical wizard who earned his previous behind-the-camera experience helming the Disney television remake of Annie, from shredding the movie musical’s obituary with this stylish, brilliantly staged tour de force. Everything about Chicago works in spades, from the brazen bombast of the opening number, “All That Jazz” — a smoky belter by Catherine Zeta-Jones that metamorphoses into a slam-bang love scene between Renée Zellweger’s adulterous wannabe showgirl and her con man lover — to the curtain call, which summons the ghosts of Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The plot — to the degree that the film can be said to have one — revolves around naïve young Roxanne “Roxie” Hart (Zellweger), a country bumpkin from west Texas who journeyed to Chicagoland hoping for vaudeville stardom. Instead, she finds herself suffering a dead-end marriage to nebbishy Amos (John C. Reilly, playing an oddly similar role to his recent turn in The Hours) and sharing her bed with any man she thinks can offer her a grab at the brass ring. When Roxie learns that her latest paramour is nothing but a poseur furniture salesman, she fills him full of lead and gets hauled off in a Black Maria for her trouble.

This crime of passion takes Roxie from the big city to the Big House, where she lands gam-to-gam with red-hot chanteuse Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), who’s awaiting her own trial for double murder after catching her sister and husband in flagrante delicto. But all is not lost. Prison matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah) hooks both jailbird canaries up with showboat criminal attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who boasts, “If Jesus Christ had lived today in Illinois, and had five thousand dollars, and He’d come to me…things would’ve turned out differently.” Flynn sees Roxie as a one-way ticket to banner headlines, while Velma is agate type on page D-18. The question becomes: Which woman will hang for her crime, and which will live to conquer the footlights again?

Rob Marshall deftly combines the elements that make a live musical successful — bold, bright staging, broad acting, and a vital connection with the audience — and those in which cinema excels — riveting close-ups, expansive visuals, and the ability to move from set to set with a snip of editor Martin Walsh’s scissors. He resolves the challenge of the limited stage by moving most of the production numbers out of the mainstream of the action, into a dream world where anything can happen. This transcendence of reality enables Marshall to play such marvelous visual tricks as transforming Flynn and Roxie into master puppeteer and ventriloquist dummy for “We Both Reached for the Gun” and the women’s prison into an MTV version of Hades for the show-stopping “Cell Block Tango.”

Marshall’s cast doesn’t let him down. Renée Zellweger is better at handling the quicksilver dramatic shifts in her character’s fortunes than she is with the song and dance — her soprano is thin and her choreography tentative at times — but still she acquits herself admirably. (She looks a mite underfed, though, next to the voluptuous Catherine Zeta-Jones. When another character accurately comments on Zellweger’s “skinny legs,” the line elicits concern for her health rather than laughter.) Zeta-Jones, a chorine early in her career, is astoundingly effective, delivering her solo numbers with boundless sensuality and verve. Both Queen Latifah (“When You’re Good to Mama”) and John C. Reilly (“Mr. Cellophane”) shine in their moments in the spotlight. Taye Diggs and Christine Baranski each steal a scene or two in small roles as the Onyx Club’s pianist and a society reporter, respectively.

Most remarkable of all is Richard Gere, who hasn’t looked this assured in a role since An Officer and a Gentleman, way back in 1982. Who knew he had this much James Cagney and Robert Preston in him? Freed from the pressure of carrying a film single-handedly, and given a wonderful opportunity to chew scenery and strut his stuff, Gere quickly makes us forget about his mostly lackluster appearances of the past two decades and welcome him anew as a genuine three-tool talent. (Yes, as the credits are quick to emphasize, he and his co-stars perform their own songs and dance routines. How that accounts for Gere’s bizarre quasi-British accent while singing is beyond me.) We even wonder whether Gere is speaking just slightly into the mirror when his character tells Roxie, “You’re a phony celebrity. A flash in the pan. In a couple of weeks nobody’s going to [care] about you. That’s Chicago.”

Visually, Chicago is magnificent. The sumptuous production designs by veteran John Myhre (responsible for the look of such varied films as Ali and X-Men) are first-rate, as are Colleen Atwood’s picture-perfect Roaring ’20s costumes. My only quibble is that the picture appears eye-strainingly dark at times, but I’ll chalk that up at least in part to my local projectionist. No doubt the film will play even better when released on DVD.

If Chicago has a weakness, it’s in Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb’s original book, though screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) relies much more on the interpretation of the recent Broadway revival than on Fosse’s bleaker approach. This sordid tale doesn’t really give the audience a character to root for — with the exception of the pathetic Amos, everyone is out only for her or his own interests. Which, of course, was Fosse’s own pointed commentary on show business, a world where venality and egocentricity are king and queen. That is, after all, Chicago. Or Broadway. Or Hollywood. Take your pick.

A splashy, sexy bombshell of a musical, featuring Oscar-caliber performances and direction, and surprisingly nimble singing and dancing to boot, Chicago rates 4 stage door Johnnies out of a possible four. Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle, indeed.

Chicago is a Miramax Films release, directed by Rob Marshall. The screenplay was written by Bill Condon, adapted from the musical by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and from the stage play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Chicago stars Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, and Taye Diggs.

Chicago is rated PG-13, for sexual content and language, and for brief scenes of violence. It’s definitely not the sort of musical that makes for family entertainment, though mature adolescents 13 and older may enjoy it, and adults certainly will. Running time is 113 minutes.

Articles index