SHIMMY SHAKE!: Chicago

zetajonesChoreographer Rob Marshall’s frequently dazzling, often amazing, and occasionally awkward film version of the Broadway musical Chicago made me tap my toes in spite of myself. Watching Catherine Zeta-Jones tear up the screen in the opening number “All That Jazz” not only gave me hope that this would be a great movie, but goddamn if I didn’t want to get up and shimmy like sister Cate. Nonetheless, I remained comfortably seated throughout the film, which—despite passages of brilliance thrilling in their visceral intensity—itself takes a backseat to Bob Fosse’s showbiz masterpiece All That Jazz—the one-of-a-kind film that Chicago aims to top.

To begin with, Marshall scraps Fosse’s original choreography in favor of his own. Fair enough. Yet Fosse’s dances exuded a sense of danger; his dancers had the ripe, sweat-drenched physicality that suggested a snack of forbidden fruit (think back to the “take off with us” sequence from All That Jazz). Marshall never lets you see the sweat, and his moves—especially in Chicago’s first scene—seem redolent of a risqué soda commercial. Zeta-Jones, who does her own singing, transcends the limitations of the others on stage, and the film is off to an electrifying start anyway. There’s a split-second of sheer boldness that may be the best directed, best edited shot of any movie since Fosse’s era: Renee Zellweger, who plays Roxie Hart, walks into the club where Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) holds her audience enthralled, and star-struck Roxie pictures herself as Velma up there finishing the song. Chicago has more leaps between fantasy and reality than even Pennies From Heaven, and the exuberant, fluid crosscutting becomes a star in its own right.

Roxie and Velma connect much later in life—in prison, as it turns out: both women murder their men in crimes of passion. And here’s where Chicago’s real problems begin. It’s hard to make dancing look fun in the slammer. In Milos Forman’s otherwise terrific film version of Hair, for instance, there’s a too precisely choreographed prison riot—set to the title song—that’s both ludicrous and static. Chicago’s equivalent groaner is “The Cell-Block Tango.” In it, six murderous song-and-dance women reenact how they slew their victims, and the stylized literalness of the staging halts the movie. Grindingly.

And it’s difficult to believe that Roxie, who aspires to be a performer, would snub Velma when she offers to bring Roxie into her sister act (to replace the sibling that Velma shot dead along with the cheating husband). Velma, it’s reasonable to suppose, has theatrical connections that Roxie would kill for. Roxie, a great star in her own mind, believes that her newfound notoriety is sufficient to launch a career once freed from jail. Given that Zeta-Jones dances, sings, and acts circles around Zellweger, Roxie’s obtuseness takes on a dimension that Marshall and the scenarist Bill Condon can’t wholly have intentioned. The filmmakers’ major conceit—that their Chicago takes place entirely within Roxie’s imagination—hems the proceedings too snugly.

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Although Zeta-Jones is the real star here, her director doesn’t seem to know it. Marshall shoots Zellweger in almost constant close-up, so that even before the movie ended, her omnipresence exhausted me. She isn’t terrible; she excels in her “Funny Honey” number early on, but there’s just too much Zellweger. Whereas Zeta-Jones, sporting a 1920s flapper haircut her face was made for, left me eager for her next musical comedy exploit. If ever again such an opportunity presents itself.

Chicago’s third major character presents the movie’s biggest fumble. As Billy Flynn, a shyster with a winning streak for reprieving comely murderesses from death row, Richard Gere has never looked so tired and flabby onscreen before. His singing is an unmitigated disaster: Billy warbles with a vague Irish brogue that doesn’t carry over into his speaking voice, and Gere sounds as befuddled as Rod Stewart trying to croon show tunes. You would have to go back to Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon to find a musical casting choice this bizarrely misguided. Gere dances better than he sings, except when required to strip down to his skivvies. If this were the same Gere of American Gigolo or Bloodbrothers, okay sure. But as the photojournalist Eve Arnold—who snapped Joan Crawford in the buff at the star’s insistence—once observed, something happens to the body after 50. Gere—not to beat him up too severely—has his day in Chicago’s sublime marionette sequence, “They Both Reached for the Gun.” That smile on Billy’s face as he manipulates the strings of Roxie and the reporters speaks with an eloquence that nearly excuses the rest.

In spite of its mistakes, Chicago achieves much that’s unerringly right or close enough. In supporting roles, John C. Reilly and Christine Baranski are splendid. As Roxie’s thrown-away husband Amos, Reilly invests his one number “Mister Cellophane” with exactly the amount of pathos the recipe calls for and not a wasted bit more. He’s blessed with a beautiful singing voice. Baranski, who has more Broadway cred than the entire cast put together, mutes her grande dame instincts to vanish into Mary Sunshine, the lone woman reporter amidst the media bloodhounds who rumble from one splashy killing to the next.

Will Chicago revive the movie musical? God, I hope. In 1979 and 1981, All That Jazz and Pennies from Heaven were considered too dark and unsettling for the genre. Times have changed, however. Palettes are darker, and I think audiences are more willing to embrace the kind of risks those earlier films took. Using the conventions of fantasy to express harsh truths doesn’t seem so novel any more: it seems like the zeitgeist opium of our terrified times. – NPT

December 2002
Originally published in
Vigilance.

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