"A Chorus Line" is a kind of "Murphy's Law: The Motion Picture" -- everything that can go wrong does. Based on the long-running Broadway musical, it's not an adaptation so much as an assassination, a case study in how not to bring a play to the screen.
"A Chorus Line" takes you through a day of auditions for the chorus of a Broadway musical. But they're not just any auditions. The choreographer, Zach (Michael Douglas), who is not very nice but, inevitably, "so goddam talented," doesn't want the usual singing, dancing or scene readings -- he wants confessions. The dancers stand on stage in a line; Zach sits 20 rows back in the theater. Presumably, these people are so hungry for a job that they'll do anything, because pretty soon they're pouring their hearts out, while Zach, growling insults and encouragement into his microphone, lurks in the shadows like the Wizard of Oz.
Well, who should show up but Cassie (Alyson Reed), Zach's old flame and former star hoofer, looking for a job in the chorus -- she left for Hollywood a while back and hasn't worked for a year. Why such a spectacular dancer hasn't worked in a year is never explained, but please, let's not quibble. The other dancers probably haven't worked in a year, either, and what "A Chorus Line" is really about is why anyone would continue in a profession that seems to consist mostly of humiliation. And that's an easy one. They continue so they can draw themselves up, clench a fist to their bosom and aver, with breathless pride, "I'm . . . a dansah!"
The stuff of "A Chorus Line," in short, is plenty fatuous -- it takes that famous photograph of Lyndon Johnson showing off his appendix scar and blows it up into a world view. The chorus liners go on and on about their insensitive parents and bullying teachers and broken homes and sexual traumas and nervous breakdowns and how it's all okay now because (here goes) "I'm . . . a dansah!" The whole movie seems to take place in some boozy 3 a.m. of the soul; it's group therapy in tights.
Director Richard Attenborough only makes it seem more maudlin through his affection for close-ups, from which he cuts away to aerial shots that make the characters seem inconsequential. Then again, you don't go to a musical to be moved so much as entertained, and it's here that Attenborough does his worst.
The choice of Attenborough, a Britisher with no feel for the American idiom, was perverse from the start -- instead of "A Chorus Line," we get "A Chorus Queue." Attenborough's talents as a director begin and end with the organization of large crowd scenes, so when he's called upon to photograph song and dance, he's completely at sea. Consider "I Can Do That," one of the musical's best numbers, performed here by talented, charismatic Charles McGowan. As McGowan launches into the song, Attenborough throws his montage machine into high gear, fracturing the performance into close-ups of hands, feet, head -- you feel as if you're in the pathology lab at the county morgue. As if that's not bad enough, Attenborough cuts away repeatedly to reaction shots of the rest of the line smiling in pearly delight (our cue, I suppose, to smile in pearly delight as well).
But wait -- the sabotage isn't over. Attenborough then cuts backstage to Cassie mooning over her lost love. Then he cuts to a flashback of the young Cassie rehearsing in Zach's mirror-lined dance studio. By which point you're struggling to remember: "Wasn't there a song and dance in here somewhere?" Well, yes -- it's called "I Can Do That," and if Attenborough would just stop his directorial shoveling, you might be able to sit back and enjoy it.
The cuts to Cassie are instructive, because the way Attenborough and his screen writer, Arnold Schulman, have built up her role (and Zach's) is what's most wrong about "A Chorus Line." Giving her an extra song, shooting her in close-up, bringing the love story stage center, they've turned an ensemble piece into a te te-a -te te. The rest of the cast become mere extras, which may make the director of "Gandhi" more comfortable (extras are what he's good at), but throws what was original about "A Chorus Line" completely out of whack. "A Chorus Line" becomes exactly the kind of star vehicle it was supposed to be an antidote to. In the end, that's why you don't care about the performers' travails -- Attenborough doesn't either. The problems between the star choreographer and his old star pupil -- that's what matters.
It doesn't help that Attenborough has assembled a largely undistinguished cast -- few can really dance, and those who can dance can't act, and those who can act can't sing. It also doesn't help that Michael Douglas has been cast in the male lead. With his glittering eyes and clenched jaw, Douglas is the most impenetrable of leading men -- your eyes ricochet right off him. And if Zach is so talented, he ought to have given a few pointers to "A Chorus Line" choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday, who could use the help. I've only touched on how tacky and inert this movie is. Singular, yes; sensation, hardly.