Chicago

Miramax, 2002

“Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it

And the reaction will be passionate...”

—Billy Flynn, “Razzle Dazzle”

“Is a puzzlement,” the King of Siam might have mused, how anyone could pass off a movie without dancing as a musical. But what about all those sequences featuring legions of dancers so prominently featured in the trailers? If you look closely, they’re not dancing. If anything, they’re moving in the same direction together. But that’s not dancing. Neither is having a line of people all nail a hip shot on cue, nor land in the splits simultaneously, dancing. Believe it or not, Young Frankenstein had more complicated choreography than Chicago.

After several plays, movies, and a fabulously successful Broadway revival, the story should be well known. Vain, manipulative, conniving, and amoral, accused murderers Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, and their slick lawyer, Billy Flynn, will do anything for the spotlight and success. Perhaps when the show was initially created – almost 30 years ago – the subject matter and the potential for social commentary was edgy, daring, even shocking. No more. We’re bombarded by more lurid tales of cynical exploitation on the cover of The Enquirer.

There’s a litany of things “wrong” with Chicago. In order to craft a “classic” musical, it helps to have memorable songs. Chicago doesn’t. And even if they’re not breakthrough hits that people mumble and hum their way through on their way out of the theatre, it helps if they’re good. And they’re not. Richard Gere cannot sing or dance. Catherine Zeta Jones’ performance consists entirely of costume and makeup, and in that regard, she manages to be less expressive than Kim Cattrall’s character, pre-transformation, in Mannequin.

The direction slavishly and continually evokes the ghost of Bob Fosse, but not in a way that can be considered remotely complimentary. It just makes you wonder what someone with their own vision would have come up with. On the other hand, Fosse would be truly proud of the rampant cynical streak that winds its way through Chicago. Unfortunately, it’s not the theme or characters, but the execution. As if being possessed of choreography that makes the average episode of Solid Gold look like a monument to staging sophistication, the fact that anyone would have the audacity to label any film mixed by a two man crew as a “musical” is a crime against the entire proud tradition of which it claims to be part.

So between the conspicuous lack of choreography and the absence of a directorial perspective (both of which were nominally achieved by the same person – do we see a trend here?) one might get the idea that there are no redeeming qualities, and that just wouldn’t quite be fair. After turning in fine performances in such films as The Thin Red Line and Boogie Nights who’d have thought John C. Reilly could sing? But sing he can, and his performance of “Mr Cellophane” is one of Chicago’s few highlights. Though not exactly renowned for her singing, Queen Latifah’s musical delivery is top notch, and she turns in yet another fine acting performance.

In the end, though, the film belongs to Renee Zellweger. As presented, it’s a role which requires as much, if not more acting ability than singing and dance skill. Always regarded as a first rate thespian, the ever enthusiastic Miss Z also proves that her vocal talents should not be confined to the shower.

The industry is abuzz with talk of Oscars, but since there’s no category for “Best Fake Musical” – just as there’s no “Best Song from a Disney Film” – it will no doubt wind up competing against and thoroughly crushing more deserving work which happens to lack the avalanche of positive, vacuous press. If Chicago merits the appellation of “great musical,” then Disney should brush the lint off Swing Kids, ’cause there’s a surge of popular acceptance looming just over the horizon.