Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” is a hot sexy blistering wow of a movie. This musical fuels itself with all that Broadway should be and blasts off directly into the moviegoer’s senses. It’s great songs, amazing choreography and sharp filmmaking attack the viewer from all angles and never lets up.
Set in the 1920s, the film revolves around the trial of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a desperate wannabe who shoots her lover when his promises of riches and fame turn out to be nothing but lies to get her into bed. After finding herself on death row, she cons her cuckold husband (John C. Reilly) into hiring Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a shameless self-promoting lawyer who orchestrates Roxie’s trial into big time headline news.
The ruthless Roxie basks in the attention, proving to be Flynn’s rival in the shameless department; she even fakes a pregnancy to stay in the media spotlight, but she does step on a few toes, mainly those of Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Kelly, whose own sensational trial takes a backseat to Roxie’s, was part of a smash sister singing duo until she killed her sister and husband when she found them conducting their own duet.
Rather than succumbing to the old musical sensibility where characters would burst into song in the middle of a scene, Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon filter the story through Roxie’s imagination where she fantasizes the trial to be a series of exquisite and elaborate musical numbers. This is the realization of the reinvention of the musical that Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” started last year, but unlike that wildly uneven film, “Chicago” never yields to unsuccessful eccentricities that reduce the material rather than enhance it.
The film’s opening number immediately tells moviegoers they are in for a spectacular experience. Zeta-Jones’s “All that Jazz” is a sexy and kinetic performance that is the musical equivalent of the opening battle scenes of “Saving Private Ryan.”
If the film has any flaws, it’s the under-utilization of Zeta-Jones’s incredible singing and dancing talents. Even though it is Roxie’s movie, Velma is the electric one, and for her efforts in bringing to life this female pyrotechnic, Zeta-Jones definitely deserves some recognition from the Academy come March.
But it isn’t only Zeta-Jones who surprises the moviegoer with her talents; both Zellweger and Gere are incredibly good with the song and dance numbers. Who knew that Gere could sing? With his great performance in last summer’s “Unfaithful,” and his newly discovered talents here, Gere’s career could go through the roof with unlimited possibilities. An American Gigolo in Paris?
Sprinkled into the already strong cast is Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton, the prison matron who helps both Roxie and Velma while they are death row inmates. Her “When You’re Good to Mama” is an entertaining romp that proves there is more to this queen of rap.
“Chicago” is executed with so much style and zest that, if he knew about it, Bob Fosse would claw his way out of the grave to see his Broadway creation splashed upon the screen with such cinematic flair.
Stephen Allan can be contacted at [email protected]