Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:53 - Released 12/27/02

One gets the sense that there is a new—or at least a renewed—trend in Hollywood: the revival of big-budget Broadway musicals as feature films, starring established “serious actors” whom we had no idea could sing or dance. It’s been a while since the likes of Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The Music Man were playing on the large screen, but after the phenomenal success of last year’s Moulin Rouge (which was written as an original film, but had all the trappings and over-the-top performances of a standard product of the Great White Way), and the similar reaction to this new Rob Marshall-directed version of Chicago, which copped three Golden Globes last week in the musical/comedy category [best picture, best actor (Richard Gere), and best actress (Renée Zellweger)], and was nominated for several more, it’s safe to say there may be more of the same in the near future. Perhaps in the next few years we’ll see My Fair Lady starring Jennifer Love Hewitt and Robin Williams, or West Side Story with Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas. Maybe even the all-nude musical Oh! Calcutta!, starring Elizabeth Hurley, Salma Hayek, Halle Berry, and Britney Spears. Hey, a movie critic can dream, can’t he?

Anyway, this film (adapted by screenwriter Bill Condon from the 1975 Broadway version by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, which itself was based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins) has all the sparkle, all the razzle-dazzle, and all the old-time Broadway charm you could hope for, with virtuosic performances not only by Zellweger and Gere, but by supporting performers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly, who all, as the credits make perfectly clear, performed their own singing and dancing for the film’s numerous musical numbers. Also deserving of praise is first-time feature film director Marshall for his energetic production values and his choreography, the level of which could make or break a film like this, and cinematographer Dion Beebe for assembling it all within the lens. I have never seen a stage production of Chicago, but I daresay I could not have enjoyed it more live than I did in this version. When actors who usually play more subtle roles are up there hoofing it and belting out Broadway melodies, you can’t help but feel you’re getting your money’s worth.

Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is a bored housewife in 1920s Chicago who knows she could make it in vaudeville if someone would just discover her. In fact, despite the fact that she’s only marginally talented, she sees her entire life as a lavish musical (starring her, of course), with every person she meets playing a supporting part. A sort of singing and dancing version of Walter Mitty, she is far more talented in her optimistic fantasy world than in real life, but it is the fantasies that we see played out as she imagines them, with director Marshall deftly cutting back and forth between her glitzy version of events and the often grim reality of the situation. When her extramarital lover (Dominic West) reneges on his promise to get her a job at the Onyx club, she shoots him dead and is promptly arrested and sent to a women’s prison, where she meets several other man-killing females including famous Onyx performer Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones). With the financial help of her ignorant doormat husband (Reilly), she seeks the counsel of famous attorney Billy Flynn (Gere), who, according to the openly corrupt prison warden (Latifah), has never lost a case. But Flynn is also Velma’s lawyer, which sets up a conflict between the reigning nightclub queen and her up-and-coming wannabe replacement. Flynn, who prizes celebrity even more than his standard $5,000 retainer fee, teaches Roxie that to win favor among the public (and the jury), you’ve got to “razzle-dazzle ‘em”—that life is just one big show—which, of course, fits perfectly well with Roxie’s take on life anyway. Also present are Christine Baranski as the local tabloid reporter and Lucy Liu as another popular murderess who threatens to steal the spotlight.

America’s tastes in entertainment seem to be ever-changing, and the movie industry tries its best to keep up in whatever way will earn the most dollars. Perhaps the late 20th/early 21st century popularity of gross-out comedy and risk-oriented “reality” programming has finally begun to wane (please, please…), so now the pendulum begins to swing back toward the classics. Whether Chicago is an early example of an emerging trend or simply a welcome anomaly, it is welcome indeed, reaffirming the old-fashioned notion that film performers have to actually have talent, and use it, in order to succeed. ****½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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