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In the early 1930s theater owners, flooded by musicals and responding to a public that was exhausted by the show-off use of sound through music, would enthusiastically declare "NOT A MUSICAL!" on their billboards when a film gave them the chance. At this point, the musical was a dying, near-irrelevant commercial enterprise.

Then came Busby Berkley with his clever, campy camera movements and the muscial was reborn. Fred Astaire, Gingers Rogers, Vincente Minelli, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Stanley Donen, and Bob Fosse followed and continued to innovate. More recently, for better or for worse, Baz Luhrmann has taken on the musical genre with Moulin Rouge. Rob Marshall's Chicago has managed to miss most of these advancements and minus its color and some quick cutting, looks about like a musical circa 1931, specifically the ones theater owners and the public of that time were rejecting.

Yet perhaps in an age when the musical has been a pariah, one should just be happy for its return, enjoying it more for a job well done and less for any expectant innovation. This might hold if only one could look at Chicago as a job well done. Instead, audiences are faced with a film that badly brow beats them, treats them as children and constantly reminds them they are watching something that is supposed to be "theatrical." But Chicago is not theatrical nor is it cinematic, two different things which the creators of Chicago think are the same. Chicago is an unprofessional piece of circus entertainment, annoyingly demanding your attention through its cheap flash and more proud of keeping people from leaving their seats than actually entertaining them.

The story takes place in the jazzland of 1920s Chicago. Roxie Hart, played with a misplaced but stellar effort by Renée Zellweger, makes a cuckold of her kindhearted but naive husband, Amos, played professionally by John C. Reilly. Roxie wants to be a vaudeville star. Absent of much talent, she is quite willing to sleep her way to success. A lover who promised to help her career turns out to have no connections and a fight ensues. Roxie pulls a gun and kills him. She gets her husband to believe the lover was a robber/rapist and take the fall for her with the cops. Chicago PD quickly sees through this ruse, and Roxie is off to the slammer.

So here is where the film could have become a women's prison exploitation film. It does not. It probably would have been better if it had. Roxie quickly sheds her cocoon of naiveté and develops a useful callus of cynicism. She learns how to manipulate Queen Latifah's Mamma, the top dog of female prisoners. Mamma helps set her up with "razzle-dazzle" defense lawyer Billy Flynn -- Richard Gere with little depth beyond schmaltzy panache. Flynn is also defending Catherine Zeta-Jones's Velma Kelly, a real vaudeville star and idol of Roxie's who shot her husband and co-star sister after finding them in bed together. Flynn is the best lawyer in town. As he humbly admits, "if Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago, and if he'd had $5,000, and had come to me -- things would have turned out differently." He knows how to manipulate the press and public and give them what they want, as do Roxie and Velma. Thus begins a competition between Velma and Roxie for newsprint space.

In our current age of star-fornication and schadenfreude, this all has the potential for some great satire. But Chicago is a curiously light treatment of these subjects. John Kander and Fred Ebb, who composed and wrote the original Broadway show had an acutely developed sense of grotesque camp. Their works, in the tradition of playwrights such as Joe Orton, appear to be all fun and games while underneath something truly sinister lurks. Think of Cabaret with its slowly growing number of Nazi audience members. Also think of how Bob Fosse directed the film version of Cabaret. It is a difficult task to properly sheath this vulgarity in comedy, this darkness in lightheartedness, but it is a necessary one if the Kander and Ebb ouevre is to work.

Director and choreographer Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon are sadly not up to, if not even aware of, this task. Their Chicago is a banal exercise in crass showmanship. Their concern is how to get the film to the next big show stopper, not how to present the work as a cohesive whole. When it is presented on DVD, it would not be surprising if fans use the scene access to watch only individual numbers, rarely taking in the full film.

As for the numbers themselves, they are the most disappointing aspect of the entire film, precisely because all involved obviously concentrated the most effort on them. The fault here lies not with Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, or Gere, but again with Marshall and Condon, as well as editor Martin Walsh. Considering most of the cast are not dancers, Marshall, Condon, and Walsh had to find a way to work around this. Their answer was to cut around their stars and over edit, so viewers never quite see what is going on. The problem is, viewers never really feel what is going on either.

Likewise, the film often cuts after or behind the beat, as opposed to on it, hampering the synthesis between image and sound, dance and music. This slows things down and deadens each number's impact. Further, every number is played as a finale. Look at RKO's Astaire/Rogers musicals, or that greatest of all musicals, Singin' in the Rain and note how the first numbers are quite basic and build to bigger, better, and greater ones. Imagine Gene Kelly performing the fantasy sequence from An American in Paris in the beginning of the film and one gets an idea of the problems with pacing Chicago gives itself. Yet, the absence of fantasy in Chicago's numbers is also a problem. Next to a cartoon, no other cinematic genre can get away with breaking more rules than a musical. In this way, the musical is nearly pure cinema, in no way tied to realism and relishing the surrealistic potential the camera holds. But Chicago chooses to present everything as a stage performance, face-front to the camera, all entirely too familiar to the eye.

For all these faults, Chicago achieves some redemption through the performance of two of its actresses and one of its numbers. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who actually began as a song and dance gal in British productions of 42nd Street and The Pajama Game, is a fireball of seduction. It is a joy to be played, manipulated, lead on, and pushed away by her. A worthy successor to Barbara Stanwyck, she knows when to flash it all and when to play coy, and how to syncopate between the two. Queen Latifah gives appropriate oomph! to her prison Momma, mixing just the right levels of violence with sex, matriarchal care with disgust. She even hints at a bit of lesbianism just for fun. It is an exceptional camp performance, coming unexpectedly from this former hip-hop star. "The Cell Block Tango/He Had It Comin'" works for the reason other numbers do not. It is imbued with a sense of dance, of music, of ballet that the rest of the film fatally lacks. You feel the scene.

Chicago has been heaped with praise, lauded with nominations and awards. Along with Moulin Rouge, a film it makes look like genius, Chicago should herald the return of the musical, and so much the better. The film musical's full return will hopefully show just how lacking Chicago is.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Miramax Films
Movie Web site: Chicago



Photo credits: © 2002 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.