Tough & brittle Chicago
Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 12:23 a.m.
STARS: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere
THEATER: Butler Plaza
Directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall; written by Bill Condon, based on the musical play (book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb) and the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins; director of photography, Dion Beebe; edited by Martin Walsh; music by John Kander, lyrics by Ebb, original score music by Danny Elfman; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Martin Richards; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 108 minutes.
WITH: Renee Zellweger (Roxie Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelley), Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), Queen Latifah (Matron Mama Morton), John C. Reilly (Amos Hart), Lucy Liu (Kitty Baxter), Taye Diggs (Bandleader), Colm Feore (Harrison), Christine Baranski (Mary Sunshine), Dominic West (Fred Casely) and Chita Rivera (Nickie).
"Chicago" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has violence, and the strong language and sexuality, real and implied, befitting an old-school tabloid burlesque.
It's the raw expenditure of energy and the canniness of the staging that will pull you in and keep you rooted. The fabulous bones of this oft-told tale have been picked over so often that they're fit only for caramelizing: There's no flesh left on them.
But Marshall and the screenwriter Bill Condon get a terrifically sweet glaze out of this fabled skeleton.
The movie, set in Prohibition-era Chicago, is tough, brittle fun - a mouthful. Mercilessly adapted by Condon, who won an Oscar for his "Gods and Monsters" script, this "Chicago" has a connoisseur's appreciation of camp, which it treats as a dish best served cold.
This, of course, is undoubtedly the best way to present a movie take on Bob Fosse's digressive musical version of "Chicago."
The original "Chicago" made it to the screen twice, most notably as 1942's "Roxie Hart," one of the finest comedies of that era. This new picture maintains the relentless spirit of Fosse's blunt suavity and the breathless, black-silk enthusiasm of Kander and Ebb's songs.
In other words, "Chicago" is as tough as Roxie (Renee Zellweger) turns out to be. Her Roxie is on trial on a murder charge, accused of killing a man (Dominic West) who took advantage of her.
Marshall's movie makes her more of a victim initially. But as the press coverage of Roxie's trial grows, she gets hooked on cheap, easy fame.
Fosse heated up the action by making "Chicago" about predatory sex and wild justice.
Fosse's "Chicago" broadcast the crass, manipulative motives of everyone involved. The sinewy, exposed skin of the dancers provided a jaw-plummeting contrast to the cold callousness of the characters.
Marshall and Condon try something different. It cranks up the temperature by flashing more thigh than Kentucky Fried Chicken, generating excitement with bullet-timed editing and brassy, hip-shaking musical numbers that openly comment on what has come before as well as advancing the story.
For the eruption of the musical numbers, the movie pops inside Roxie's head - the id-free world of her unconscious, where the songs are sung out and the dances are flung out.
Back in the real world, the competition grows between Roxie and Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Velma is a jazz baby stage performer who is also doing time and anxious about being upstaged.
"Chicago" was a tough movie to make. Fosse, laboring to get it done since he brought it to the stage in 1975, finally gave up; instead he transplanted some of the plot machinations and several of the show's songs to the movie "All That Jazz" (1979). But Fosse's death in 1987 wasn't enough to derail a filmed "Chicago."
With the exception of Wilma Flintstone, almost every female star of the last 20 years who ever sang a note was mentioned as a possible star.
"Chicago" has become Roxie's story, but that doesn't stop Marshall from supplying its cast with moments to, as Fosse used to say, razzle-dazzle 'em. As the big-ticket defense lawyer and jury barometer Billy Flynn, Richard Gere has never been better, turning spoiled princeling arrogance into a witty revel.
Queen Latifah, as the prison matron, has a number dripping with the honey of the young Bessie Smith. John C. Reilly is the opposite - the movie's conscience - as Roxie's long-suffering husband, and his baggy-pants "Mr. Cellophane" number is rueful and angry.
Catherine Zeta-Jones plays an ambitious showgirl in "Chicago," now
playing in Gainesville. To be sure, it's not the type of picture that lingers, and obviously some of the sting-like-a-bee editing is a mercy to Zellweger, whose float-like-a-butterfly voice doesn't triumph over her my-left-foot dance skills.
The big finale featuring her and Zeta-Jones almost does what a jury can't: Stop them cold. Until that scene, Zellweger's performance is alternately subtle and reptile; she can still win the day. Who would have expected Zellweger - and Miramax - to come through in a musical? And it's one of the few Christmas entertainments to run under two hours - who couldn't love that?
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