The Broadway revival of Chicago managed to be cheeky and creaky, a throwback to pseudo-racy vaudeville that's "clean-sexy" in a non-threatening, Marilyn Monroe sort of way. Chicago the movie, from first-time feature director Rob Marshall, amplifies the passion and ratchets up the sass, all with a wink and a grin held over from the original tongue-in-cheek theatrical production.
From its first song-and-dance to its final curtain call, Marshall's Chicago packs its frames with all that jazz; translated, that means corruption, adultery, exploitation, and death. This ain't the 1990s, folks. It's the Roaring '20s, and murder - as seedy attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) so aptly puts it - is "a form of entertainment."
It's tough not to like this new Chicago, an energetic toe-tapper fuelled by booze and jazz. Everything kickstarts when would-be Cabaret singer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) caps her lying lover after he breaks a crucial promise. Facing a public hanging, Roxie buddies up to greedy warden "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah) and lands celebrity lawyer Flynn for her case. Roxie's murder trial becomes a meal ticket for all involved, though she just might need the help of former lounge singer and fellow inmate Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) if either songbird ever intends to see the light of day.
Admittedly, it takes Marshall two or three musical numbers before he can flush his theater instincts out of his system and fully comprehend just what film can do to improve his production. A veteran stage performer and theater director, Marshall is slow to recognize that the medium of film allows for smoother transitions between scenes that would be impossible to do on a wide open stage. "All That Jazz," which launches the film, "Funny Honey," and "Cell Block Tango" play out much like you'd expect them to on stage, with little enhancement (or subsequent interference) from the camera. Right around the time I started to wonder if we were doomed to endure a straight-laced cinematic version of the already acceptable Chicago stage show, Marshall starts to get it. By the time we reach "Razzle Dazzle," he's found his own, well, razzle dazzle, and he works it on the crowd with spectacular results.
Chicago's choreography - another fruit of Marshall's labor - is nothing short of electric. Each and every member of this rock solid ensemble is ready, willing and, thankfully, able. Zeta-Jones proves herself to be as vigorous as she is gorgeous, giving Velma a smoldering swagger. And Zellweger, with her saucer blue eyes and raspy conversational lilt, conveys Roxie's longing for stardom. Whether singing, dancing, or baring their claws, these two dames sure can swing.
The men in the cast fare just as well. John C. Reilly's understated rendition of "Mr. Cellophane" drips with the right amount of pathos and power. And Gere is note-perfect as Flynn, a born entertainer with a law degree who performs twice as hard as Roxie and Velma combined every time he steps in front of the judge and jury. His courtroom tap dance is masterful, a choice example of Marshall finally using astute images to convey a character's implied feelings. Gere makes me wish Billy Flynn had represented O.J. Simpson. Talk about the trial of the century.
Chicago may hang its garter belt on a shallow and vapid message that's not much deeper than your standard "15 minutes of fame" lecture, but that hardly prevents it from being as rousing, robust, and extremely contagious as any film I've seen this year. Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe light the musical numbers like stage productions and fill the remainder of the film with explosions of color. Count how many times you catch yourself stomping a foot or tapping your leg. All in all, a damn good time at the theater ... er, movies.
The DVD includes a deleted musical number, behind-the-scenes featurette, and a commentary from Marshall and writer Bill Condon.
Splits before Zod!