Release Date: December 27th, 2002 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Rob Marshall Actors: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere, Christine Baranski, Lucy Liu, Colm Feore, Dominic West, Taye Diggs
ister act Veronica and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) turns into a solo performance when Velma is forced to sing “All That Jazz” by herself, thanks to a last-minute, mortal falling-out. In the audience is Roxanne Hart (Renee Zellweger), who aspires to be at the center of the Chicago nightlife spotlight herself (causing the story to take some plot points from “All About Eve”), though she struggles to get ahead when she latches onto furniture salesman Fred (Dominic West), who merely wants to use her for sex. When the cold truth of their affair abruptly reveals itself, Roxie puts a few bullets into him.
Fortunately, her mechanic husband Amos (John C. Reilly) covers for her, claiming that Fred was a burglar. Unfortunately, Amos isn’t terribly smart – and Roxie’s adulterous ways inspire little faithfulness to her quickly crumbling story. In short time, she’s hauled away to Cook County Jail (murderer’s row), awaiting a potential death penalty – right alongside Velma, standing accused of double homicide herself. But there’s hope for freedom in the form of the unscrupulous yet talented defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who will take any case, no matter the odds, for his standard $5,000 fee.
Immediately, the staging is enticing, since the cutting together of scenes manages a few things that wouldn’t be possible with the limitations of a play. The juxtaposition of sex and Velma’s dance routine features rapid transitions and the mirroring of flamboyant movements, while following sequences shift between the fantasy of lavish musical performances and the actuality of incarceration. Nearly every sequence blends the dire reality of the situation with an embellished, confusing illusion of gaiety (or show business). Conversations between inmates transition into sharp choreography and catchy tunes just the same as a police interrogation transforms into Roxie crooning atop a piano or Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) introducing herself as the tough-as-nails yet entirely bribable warden.
Additionally, there’s rhythm and beats in everything – from dripping water, to footsteps, to the lighting of a match. Props provide creative ways to initiate musical numbers, while location changes are instantaneous or backgrounds fall away into chorus lines. As a modern musical, the premise is edgy, the lyrics ironic, and the costumes revealing. The cost of stardom is bitterly cynical, but it’s a whole lot of fun – and it looks dazzling – with this exceptional cast and crew. And though the story doesn’t have the same significant historical notes as “Cabaret,” the look and feel are comparable yet superior in the likability of the characters and the jazziness of the soundtrack (Taye Diggs as the bandleader even shares obvious similarities to Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies).
The routines are all highly innovative, satirical (the story itself provides commentary on sensationalism in the media and the public’s lust for bedlam), playful, exaggerated (all the roles are caricatures), and energetic (even though they’re not all unforgettable) – qualities that fit nicely with the subject matter. The brisk tempo never slows and the visuals never lose their luster. Though “Chicago” is far removed from classic Hollywood musicals (despite its setting), its identity as a star-studded, big-budget, contemporary theatrical adaptation of a musical is quite the rarity – especially for the 2000s. And this uncommonness would be handsomely rewarded at the Oscars, which gave the film six wins, including Best Picture.
– Mike Massie