'Chicago,' One Town -- And a Film -- That Won't Let You Down
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 27, 2002; Page C01
This "Chicago" doesn't toddle, it swings, it Lindy Hops, it Charlestons the night away, and probably all your woes along with it. It's the bee's knees.
A superior adaptation that bypasses the Ann Reinking version now on Broadway, it is drawn from the 1975 Bob Fosse musical, which itself was drawn from "Roxie Hart," the 1942 William Wellman movie about the 1920s Chicago crime scandal. It's blessed with a mega-wattage star turn by Catherine Zeta-Jones (can't dance, can't sing, but she sure does deliver the goods!), smooth-as-silk high unction by Richard Gere and a rich mahogany Irish lilt by, of all people, John C. Reilly.
Even Renee Zellweger, more actress than music hall gal, is pretty impressive. She can't dance either, but you wouldn't know it from this movie, in which she dances up a storm. Her flaw is in her destiny, not her character: She just doesn't have the It-thing going to the temperature of La Zeta-Jones, and at the end, when director Rob Marshall contrives to put the two of them onstage together belting out the razzle-dazzle number, you'll have to force yourself to look at Zellweger. (I tried but couldn't.)
Marshall (a heretofore undistinguished TV choreographer) has thought rigorously about the artificiality of musical theater and how awkwardly it fits within the framework of the naturalistic film. He didn't want merely to make a recording of a stage production, but at the same time he didn't want to break the thing out into a real world, where its theatricality would seem inappropriate. The compromise he has come up with works extremely well.
Aside from a few spectacular sequences set in an actual theatrical locale, most of the singing and dancing take place in the head of Roxie Hart (Zellweger). She's a fanciful wannabe star, and it's entirely appropriate that her imagination is jivey with musical-comedy conventions. Thus the movie encompasses both realities, the interior and the exterior, with a great deal of deftness.
It's also been re-choreographed by Marshall. And you think: Well, why "fix" Fosse, one of the greatest show choreographers of all time? But the fix isn't the usual Hollywood "fix" where they say, "We'll fix it," and what happens is they wreck it. Marshall has gone a long way toward capturing the percussive drive of Fosse's work while adapting it to the screen; so it's less a fix or a change or a destruction as it is a re-evocation.
I saw the most recent Broadway version, but I can't remember a thing about it except how good it made me feel. So if they've made drastic changes to the material, and you need to know exactly what they are, go elsewhere. This version really works because it's tight and clever.
The movie is set in a Windy City obsessed with sin and scandal, as driven onward by the competing dozen or so daily newsrags, each trying to sell more papers by stooping lower into the gutter than the others. It's easy to imagine Hildy Johnson from "The Front Page" covering this sordid tale, but instead Christine Baranski fills in as a sob sister named Mary Sunshine. And there's plenty for the sister to sob about.
Roxie, a dreamer, is trying to break into showbiz, and her favorite performer is the human dynamo named Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), currently the hot tamale of all Chicagoland. In her squalid little hell, Roxie has fallen for a smooth talker named Fred Casely (Dominic West), who's got her believing that he's got an in. But one night he dumps her – he didn't even have an out – so she does what any good Midwestern gal would do: She plugs him. It turns out he was married; so was she (to lumpish John C. Reilly, who later sings a stunning ballad of grief). It also turns out that Velma has some domestic discord in her own life, which she solved with gunfire also. Exit her sister and her cheatin' hubby. See, this is what they did before they had marriage counselors.
In any event, Velma and Roxie end up together in the Cook County jail, where each competes for the attentions of super-slick mouthpiece Billy Flynn (Gere), who specializes in building his cases into soap opera tragedies, to jerk tears out of the jerks on the jury. Velma snubs Roxie but it turns out that Roxie has a genius for public relations and soon, with Flynn's help, she is manipulating all the papers to elevate her into a martyred frail.
Of course, the key question here isn't "Does it make sense?" It's "Is this structure sturdy enough to sustain a musical life?" And the answer is, yes, handily. "Chicago" really perks and hums and blasts along. You can dance to it. I'd give it a 95.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is no Ethel Merman, and for a trained dancer (according to her bio), she's surprisingly heavy of foot. She doesn't have the true dancer's ability to imply lightness, to seemingly defeat gravity. Everything about her is stumpy and dense and tough. She even does a cartwheel at one point and it looks like John Riggins doing a cartwheel. But . . . she's got the oomph.
The camera registers her charisma, and the melted-mushroom hairdo, which plays up the hot depth of her eyes, is enormously helpful. In fact, in no film since "Mask of Zorro" has she imprinted movie star charisma on your retinas as well. When she dances it's with power and fury, not precision; when she sings, it's dense and throbby, not perfect, but heartfelt and believable. The camera sits back and enjoys her. She defies it to look away. It can't, although there are some other things to watch, too.
Zellweger isn't blown away by any means, but at what appears to be 35 pounds soaking wet, she seems insubstantial. She's a thrush, a wren, a hank of hair and a piece of bone, a Minnie who doesn't bother to mooch. Mooch? She looks like she hasn't eaten in months. Maybe there's a disconnect between her seeming innocence and her ability to manipulate people, her quickness at adjusting to the rules of a prison ruled by Queen Latifah as the matron, her ability to change personas for tactical advantage at the drop of a hat. At the same time, Zellweger's great strength is her likability. You cannot but care for her, and even the mercenary calculations of Roxie don't destroy your affections for Renee.
Finally, there's Gere. Not exactly an actor whom most would have picked to headline a musical comedy, but he has always shown up on time and in shape for his roles. You have to admire a guy this greasy, and man, does he slide. He may be part mollusk, he's so squishy and oozy. He even tap-dances a little (a very little: I think a real tapster spanks the dogs for the close-ups). He sings, again a little. He sings less than he dances. But at neither of these enterprises does he fail so dramatically that the film comes apart.
In all, it's a lark, a pip, a hoedown, a damned 23 skiddoo and oh, you kid.
CHICAGO (PG-13, 107 minutes) – Contains sexual suggestiveness. At area theaters.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
Charismatic Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma in the film adaptation of Bob Fosse's musical set in the Windy City.