Chicago (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Once upon a time, a Broadway musical like Chicago would have automatically received a silver screen treatment – but that was before the popularity of the movie musical crashed and burned. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm surrounding the 1996 revival of Bob Fosse's 1975 play was so extreme that studios were willing to absorb a certain amount of financial risk on the off-chance that this movie might be able to succeed where so many others had failed. The last major motion picture musical was 1996's Evita, which performed tepidly (with a domestic gross of about $50 million against a budget of $55 million). Miramax Films is hoping for a better showing for Chicago.

The movie represents good, solid entertainment. It's not nearly as rousing as the Broadway revival (then again, it's rare that the cinematic version of a musical comes close to the stage incarnation), but, for those unable or unwilling to see a live production, it represents a sparkling replacement. The film strikes a nice balance between the lavishly overproduced likes of Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge and the less openly flamboyant movies from the '50s. The style, by intention, echoes that of the late, great choreographer Fosse.

The history of Chicago is nothing if not convoluted. Originally a play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins, Chicago chronicled the real-life 1924 murder trials of two women who were eventually acquitted of their alleged crimes. Watkins' non-musical production reached Broadway in December 1926 and became the basis of two movies, including the 1942 Ginger Rogers vehicle, Roxie Hart. Decades later, Bob Fosse obtained the rights to the story, and, working with John Kander & Fred Ebb, he brought a musical version to the stage in 1975, with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach in the lead roles. Despite receiving lukewarm reviews, the play stayed alive for nearly 900 performances before ending its run. When Chicago was revived in 1996 (initially as part of New York's City Center Encores! Series), choreographer Ann Reinking devised the new version as an homage to her mentor, Fosse, albeit with a lighter, less cynical tone. The movie adaptation, which has been rumored for several years (and once had names like Madonna and Goldie Hawn attached), is heavily based on the 1996 edition rather than the 1975 one.

Fame is fleeting because the public is fickle. And nothing titillates the public like the sensational. Looking back on the 1990s, which news stories are the ones that come to mind most quickly? Tonya Harding clubbing Nancy Kerrigan? O.J. Simpson's murder trial? The Lewinsky scandal? Consider this, and it's not hard to understand why Chicago, which is about the celebrity status often accorded to criminals and the short-lived nature of fame, has found such favor during its revival. Things have changed a lot since the '70s. We were now ready to confront things that had been too raw in the immediate wake of Watergate.

The film's central characters are Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a housewife who fantasizes becoming a vaudeville star, and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a chorus girl who dreams of greater fame than she currently has. Both women find themselves in the Cook County Jail on "Muderers' Row." Roxie shot her lover after discovering that he had lied to her about working to further her singing career. Velma eliminated her husband and sister after finding them together in bed. Both women are being represented by slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who has never lost a case. His approach is to set up his clients as media darlings, then use that exposure to swing the trial in their favor. "In this town, murder's a form of entertainment," he comments. He refers to courtrooms as "three ring circuses" and assures Roxie that justice can be blinded by the "razzle dazzle" he will employ.

Their notoriety sets up Roxie and Velma as rivals for the public spotlight. The lurid details of their lives and crimes make them instant celebrities. But neither stays on top for long, and it becomes a difficult task to recapture the interest of the public once another sensational crime has been committed. There's an insatiable appetite for fresh blood, and, unless Roxie and Velma can come up with new revelations to keep them on the front page, they will be quickly forgotten – not only by the general populace, but by their camera-loving lawyer, as well.

Several of the play's numbers have been cut for reasons of pacing and length, but those that remain are expertly staged, combining high energy, Fosse-like choreography with a uniquely cinematic approach that allows vaudeville fantasy sequences to intertwine with more "concrete" moments. (For example, the courtroom scenes of Roxie's trial freely switch back and forth between testimony and Richard Gere's rendition of "Razzle Dazzle.") Credit for this goes to choreographer-turned-director Rob Marshall, who is making his feature debut. The real show stopper remains, as has always been the case with the play, the opening interpretation of "All That Jazz."

I have few complaints about the casting, which was viewed as controversial when it was announced. Catherine Zeta-Jones devours the part of Velma with relish, as if she was born to play the stuck-up murderess. Renee Zellweger, while not Zeta-Jones' equal when it comes to drawing the camera's attention, is solid for the most part, although there are a few occasions when her singing could have been stronger. Richard Gere, freed from the need to be serious and intense, exudes charm and charisma in a fun, breezy role that requires him to sing, but doesn't stretch his limited vocal abilities. John C. Reilly is a true sad-sack as Roxie's cuckolded husband and Queen Latifa is "Mama" Morton, the matron in charge of the female prisoners on Murderers' Row, who will help out her charges for a modest fee.

Even though the movie's original source material is 75 years old, the issues addressed by this film will be familiar to everyone in the audience, proving the point that technology may evolve, but human nature remains the same. The social commentary and attacks on the American system of jurisprudence are as stinging as they are valid. The nine or ten song-and-dance numbers allow us to enjoy Chicago on a less cerebral, more visceral level than might be the case if this was not a musical, but there's still a fair amount of substance to be considered. It's a pleasure to note that the return of the movie-adapted stage musical is such an unqualified success. If only audiences will pay the production the attention it deserves…

Chicago (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2002-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1