Like the case put on by the defense in the leading lady’s murder trial, “Chicago” is all razzle-dazzle – and it is only about razzle-dazzle, too.
The story is based on a real-life jazz age murder trial that inspired a non-musical play and two movies (one starring Ginger Rogers) before “Cabaret’s” Kander & Ebb turned it into a musical. Bob Fosse’s original Broadway version of “Chicago” was not a smash success in 1975. But when it was remounted with choreography by Fosse’s companion, Ann Reinking, nineteen years later, it became a worldwide hit. In the era of OJ, the idea of the celebrity defendant putting on a show for the jury had more resonance. But times change, and “Chicago’s” particular brand of cynicism may not be as much a fit in 2003.
In the movie version of the musical, director/choreographer Rob Marshall channels Bob Fosse to produce slinky dance numbers and sinuous camera work. As in Fosse’s brilliant Cabaret, the musical numbers are staged as nightclub performances and separate from the action to serve as counterpoint and commentary, illuminating the story and underscoring the theme of show over substance. Perhaps it is show instead of substance, or even show to make us forget that there is no substance.
One reason it feels so empty at the core is that the story does not have a single likeable character, honest statement, unselfish motive, or generous gesture.
Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is a former chorus girl turned unhappy wife who has gone from sleeping around (“they buy you dinner”) to fooling around (“they don’t”). She has an affair with a furniture salesman who promises to introduce her to a guy who works in a nightclub. She wants to be a star. But when the guy dumps her and tells her he never knew anyone at the nightclub, she shoots him.
In jail, she meets a cadre of women who killed the men in their lives. They explain how it all happened in “He Had It Coming.” Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) is a headliner who shot her sister and boyfriend when she found them together. She is the jail’s biggest star until lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) takes Roxie’s case and sells her to the media as an innocent bride corrupted by jazz. The ultimate showbiz razzle-dazzle is the trial, complete with costumes, props, script, and 12 very important audience members – the jury.
I have never been a fan of the play, which I found sour in tone and superficial in theme. The movie version does not add any depth. But the razzle does indeed dazzle and the musical numbers are sensational. Zellweger is in fine form in both senses of the word – that Bridget Jones weight gain is long gone. If she is not quite up to the role, perhaps she doesn’t have it in her to portray such a trashy, despicable character. Zeta Jones, with a Lulu haircut and legs made for sparkly tights, is mesmerizingly beautiful and alone has all the razzle-dazzle a movie needs. Gere clearly enjoys his return to his musical theater roots and handles the musical numbers well, especially his big tap dance. Queen Latifah as the prison warden has a lot of snap and verve and a fabulous voice. But none are a match for the real dancers in the chorus.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and sexual references and situations, briefly explicit. A possible pregnancy by a lover is an element of the plot. All characters are amoral, even sleazy.
Families who see this movie should talk about some of the current celebrity trials, like Robert Blake and the corporate scandals. How can we ensure fair treatment of all defendants, regardless of fame or fortune?