***** (out of 5)
December 27, 2002
Catherine Zeta-Jones as VELMA KELLY
Renée Zellweger as ROXIE HART
Richard Gere as BILLY FLYNN
John C. Reilly as AMOS HART
Queen Latifah as MATRON MAMMA MORTON
Christine Baranski as MARY SUNSHINE
Directed by: Rob Marshall
BY KEVIN CARR
If you listen to the industry buzz, you might believe that “Chicago” – along with 2001’s “Moulin Rouge” – is going to revive the great America musical. I wouldn’t hold your breath on this. I still think the industry is a long way from churning out song-and-dance films like the hey-day of the MGM musical. “Chicago” is a great film, but it may not touch the mainstream audience the way “Brigadoon” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” half a century ago.
Likewise, “Moulin Rouge!” was a critical success, but it didn’t profit at the box office. We can all hope that “Chicago” will bring in the dough (especially the folks at Miramax, who are by now frantically trying to cover the budget-to-box-office spread for the critically acclaimed box office bomb “Gangs of New York”). However, I fear that “Chicago” will ride out its run just about breaking even.
Choreographer-turned-director Rob Marshall, whose last excursion into film was the 1999 TV movie “Annie” (which was actually a better success than the John Huston’s 1982 disappointment), takes a decidedly darker turn in his directing efforts. There is no mistaking the fact that “Chicago” has Bob Fosse’s prints all over it.
Not quite as dark as Fosse’s Oscar-winning “Cabaret” (but only by the narrowest margin), “Chicago” shows the seedy side of show business in the darkened clubs of the Windy City in 1927. In fact, Fosse had been pursuing a big-screen version of “Chicago” before his death in 1987. It was the recent Broadway revival of the show that spurred this film version.
“Chicago” follows the life of would-be cabaret singer Roxie Hart who murders her boyfriend Fred after learning that he lied to her about getting her an audition with a local club owner. Roxie is hauled off to jail to await a murder trial. While behind bars, she befriends the warden, Mamma Morton (Queen Latifah) and learns how to work the system. Roxie lands herself as a client of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) and concocts a defense of pity, victimization and scandal. Throughout the film, they bend and twist the legal system, all culminating towards her trial. It’s hard to believe the original story for “Chicago” predated the O.J. trail by almost 20 years.
A lot of the charm of “Chicago” is how Marshall expertly blends theatre elements into the film setting without forcing them together or directing the film as if it were just shot in a black-box theatre. Even if you haven’t seen the original musical on the stage, you will appreciate the original source, finding yourself smiling as you think, “I’ll bet you that’s how it was done on the stage.”
The cast is superb – from the leads of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere – all the way down to the supporting cast members Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly. Kudos go out to all of them that sang their own songs. This was even called out in the final credits for the three leads. After years of dubbing voices Milli-Vanilli style into everything from Disney films to music videos, it is refreshing to see the actors do all the work themselves for a change. (Of course, true cinema fans will know that this technique goes as far back as when “talkies” first began, and it was even poked fun of in the film “Singing in the Rain” back in 1952.)
Special notice goes to John C. Reilly who plays Roxie’s overly-devoted husband Amos. Reilly, who is known for playing outrageously over-the-top characters in films like “Boogie Nights” and “The River Wild,” does a stellar job as the earnest yet simple-minded husband. Even after Roxie tries to make him take the rap for Fred’s murder, he still shells out $2,000 to get her Billy Flynn, the Johnny Cochran of 1927 Chicago. One of the film’s highlights is Reilly’s break-out solo of the song “Mister Cellophane” which is touching are beautiful.
The only real problem with “Chicago” is seeing Renée Zellweger in the sheer sequenced cabaret outfits. Her frail, whisper thin frame is shockingly gaunt – to the point of being repulsive. Next to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is one of the sexiest women alive and unafraid to have a little bit of shape to her, Zellweger looks like she just walked out of a concentration camp. Having been lauded for gaining 20 pounds for a role in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” it looks like she reversed that by more than twice the amount, losing all her body fat (including the parts that should have some shape). Now looking more like a 12-year-old boy, Zellweger has a figure that might only be attractive to Michael Jackson. Eat a sandwich, for crying out loud, Renée!