Yes, it’s big and clever and inventive. First-time theatrical feature director Rob Marshall (who helmed the TV version of Annie) and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) have done a splendid job of transferring a stage show to the screen — brilliantly preserving its theatricality without ever making the proceedings seem stagey.
I admit: I had mixed feelings about the film before seeing it. The trailers looked enticing enough, but the advance word on Chicago so often used the movie as a kind of cudgel against Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! — a film I greatly admire — that I’d started to resent Chicago sight unseen. Fortunately, Marshall’s film is good enough to overcome any such negative preconceptions engendered by largely pointless comparisons. It’s impossible not to note, of course, that Chicago rides in on the renewed interest in the musical spawned by Moulin Rouge!. It’s also impossible to overlook the fact that chunks of Chicago utilize the same kind of rapid-editing technique seen in Luhrman’s movie, augmented by frenetic camerawork. That, however, is about as far as the similarity goes, and it’s ridiculous to use one film against the other.
It’s much more productive to take the advice of English essayist Leigh Hunt and “continue to like that which is likable in anything” rather than trying to render it unlikable by its inferiority to something else. That’s especially so in this case, because it would be nearly impossible to find two more dissimilar films in terms of content. Where Moulin Rouge! is a celebration of art, love and, above all, innocence, Chicago is the last word in cynicism. That’s not surprising, since the original 1928 stage play on which the musical play was based is part and parcel of the same Chicago that gave us Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s quintessence of cynicism, The Front Page.
Chicago takes place in world where morals are only a kind of joke — something generated by slick lawyers, gold-digging showgirls and worldly newspapermen to benefit their own needs and desires. Like The Front Page, there’s precious little sincerity in Chicago — and what little there is just begging to be kicked in the teeth. The Front Page offers us the character of streetwalker Molly Malloy, who sacrifices herself to save convicted murderer Earl Williams, the man she loves. Chicago, however, presents the reverse of this in Amos Hart (John C. Reilly), who does much the same, in a more convoluted and painful manner, for his wife, Roxie (Renee Zellweger), who killed the man who was leading her on with promises of a showbiz career.
The differences are marginal and the similarities striking — perhaps the most striking of all is that both plays leave the ultimate fates of their sincere characters up in the air, as if the writers hold that sincerity in just as much contempt as do the plays’ characters. And that’s my one major reservation with Chicago: It’s just too cynical for its own good.
In the end, the movie made me not really care what happened to any of the characters; it didn’t engage me on any emotional level. However, if you take the film as a bitterly funny, wild ride of song, dance and cinematic invention, it’s a winner nearly all the way down the line. For me personally, director Marshall’s choreography tends to rely a bit too much on a style of Broadway show I’ve never been able to warm up to, but there are more than enough compensations in his cinematic verve, in the nearly flawless performances of the entire cast, and in the film’s raw energy.
The basic story line — flashy lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) gets his clients off murder charges by turning them into “wronged” women for the sensational press — isn’t just the excuse for the musical numbers. The numbers, which mostly take place inside Roxie’s head, are part of that story line, taking the place of dialogue and also commenting on the entire situation, making what could have been a fairly choppy approach come off as a seamless whole. From the film’s breathless opening — Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) runs into a theater for her performance just after murdering her husband and sister in a jealous rage — to its first interpolation of fantasy as Roxie imagines herself singing Velma’s song, Chicago never lets up. And even with a running time of nearly two hours, the film largely retains that kind of exhilarating and exhausting pace throughout. By movie’s end, you know you’ve had an experience — and that’s a pretty precious commodity these days.
Musical aficionados will delight in Chicago’s many references to earlier films: The building rhythms of “The Cell Block Tango” recall the opening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight; one character, presented in the guise of a Rolls Royce hood ornament, hearkens back to a Ken Russell production number from The Boy Friend; etc. The performers are happily up to the material. Renee Zelwegger’s role has the most range, since she travels the road from starstruck gold-digger to savvy manipulator of the press and public, finally realizing that in the world of Chicago, notoriety is every bit as good as fame. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ role has less dramatic tension, but she is the more accomplished musical performer and achieves the near-impossible — making her cheerfully amoral character likable, if not sympathetic. Richard Gere proves both a talented singer and dancer, as well as a splendid interpreter of the film’s wittiest cynicisms. The purest delight, however, may be Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton — an outrageously corrupt prison official who’ll do anything for her “girls” as long as the price is right. The movie would be worth it for her alone, though it’s worth it for much more than that. Chicago is not perfect, but it’s so good that you may not care.