Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)

RECOMMENDED

Given that I had written Chicago off for years — based solely on passing glimpses during my halcyon days of cable TV subscription — as the worst kind of fast-cut and incoherent modern-day musical, it’s a surprisingly delightful film, or at least it begins as one. Director Rob Marshall stages the thing as a flashy and exuberant exercise in excess, but it’s witty excess that justifies the satirical overtones in the famously brash (and infamously unsuccessful) Bob Fosse stage production. Quickly introducing the dueling fem-crime killers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly against the dazzling backdrop of jazz age Windy City roar, it proceeds to ingeniously take apart a crime scene — though, for all its mild urgings toward feminism, it fails to ever take much note of Roxie having acted in self-defense against an obvious boor — with a sap for a husband suddenly disinterested in taking the fall. When Roxie ends up on Murderer’s Row, it’s with even more explosive fervor that we experience it all through a gradual music-hall deconstruction: a simple lecture on prison life becomes a Queen Latifah showstopper, and traded anecdotes about the killings that landed the women here escalate into the beautifully staged, dynamic “Cell Block Tango,” red lights and silhouettes and glorious amoralism.

The magic only lasts until shortly thereafter, with the entrance of Richard Gere as somewhat tiredly dredged-up sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn (even his name is boring), at which point we descend into easy cynicism and the high school-level characterization of everyone as “puppets,” winding up until all the imagination has faded by the time Roxie and Velma are exchanging barbs in a ridiculous rivalry over who’s America’s murderous sweetheart, which in turn culminates in their ludicrous putting on of their own musical spectacular. The story’s sheer goofiness by the end is a benign enough mask for a larger problem, which is that the film (and presumably the Broadway musical) does an excellent job of creating and setting up characters, then has no clue what to do with them. The characterizations are vivid but almost entirely static; this is especially true of Amos Hart, Roxie’s all-too-faithful husband, charmingly enlivened by poor John C. Reilly, who can do nothing with the emptiness of the material he’s finally given after his brilliant work in his first scene in the picture.

And in story terms, the thing just feels too obvious, in a sense that might be more forgivable on stage. Cinematically if nothing else, the far more interesting story would be on about the gradual corrpution of a character like Roxie. She might initially accept her fate and her lot, but perhaps she’d learn about the seamy underbelly of the starstruck cesspool she longs to engage with; it’s a tired tale of corruptibility, but with believable characters and a less rambunctious and overstuffed narrative it could easily be a more tense and “real” experience, as much as that suggested early on when it seems that we are largely engaging with Roxie in her own fantasy world. The film ends up literalizing too much of itself, so that its hints of surrealism and flights of fancy are dulled in retrospect.

That’s because we’re treated to a somewhat obvious and weakly designed arc centered upon Roxie’s fully formed fame-obsessed sociopath. You understand the musical’s intentions for each and every character after their first scene, so the whole last hour feels like the belaboring of a point, particularly Reilly’s incredibly pointless song sequence; in no sense does the story upend any of our presumptions, to the extent of making several of the characters flat cartoons despite their early promise. (Also, I’d just like to say that musicals in which the characters have some “reason” to burst into song — like being inside a character’s head, or being within a vaudeville sub-narrative — are for me not pure musicals. Not a criticism, just an observation.)

Discarding these disappointments: the brilliance of the costume design and the first few musical scenes, and of course the tremendous performances of Renee Zellweger as Roxie (my god, has it really been this long ago?), Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma (ibid), and Queen Latifah as initially kindly, later sinister (another copout) Mama Morton are all undiluted treasures by the end of the picture. But Chicago, likely inheriting all the baggage of its source, has the chance to say something new about America, fame, tabloid culture, and justice, and shies away. I much prefer this to its direct ancestor Cabaret but not the more open-hearted parallel Dancer in the Dark. The primary effect is: how I wish there were more modern, adult-targeted, fully realized Hollywood musicals so that we wouldn’t have to just take whatever we’re handed.

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