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All that jazz and more

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[Photos: Miramax]
Renee Zellweger sings and dancers her heart out as Roxie Hart.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 2, 2003

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Chicago is not only the best picture of 2002. It's a masterpiece that decades from now should still be a prime example of what movie musicals can be.

My kind of movie, Chicago is.

Bursting from the screen with old-school razzle-dazzle, plus sexiness that never goes out of style, Chicago is a reminder of what film musicals used to be and a shining example of what they can become for a new generation.

The creative pendulum swings back from the avant-garde procedures of Moulin Rouge and Dancing in the Dark, though not all the way to the corny nostalgia of Everyone Says I Love You. It settles somewhere in the middle where Stanley Donen and Baz Luhrmann could thrillingly co-exist.

Above all, Chicago confirms how far ahead of his time the late Bob Fosse was as a filmmaker, with director Rob Marshall borrowing the many tricks he used in Cabaret 30 years ago. Actors don't sing impromptu declarations of love, ambition and suspicion to each other, at least not in the classic sense. Cabaret used songs performed inside the decadent Kit Kat Klub to comment on deteriorating Berlin outside. Marshall uses songs (also composed by Cabaret's Fred Ebb and John Kander) to allow amusingly damaged psyches to explain themselves from within.
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Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma Kelly with sensuality and flair in Chicago.

Marshall's film is Dancing in the Dark without all that dreariness, Moulin Rouge without all that strangeness. Chicago is simply the best movie of 2002, with sparkling performances, Fosse's signature choreography (channeled through part-time Tampa resident Ann Reinking) and all that toe-tapping jazz.

The plot outline is deceptively simple: Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) wants to be a nightclub siren like Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose opening number, All That Jazz, enables Marshall to jump-cut into his first internalized showstopper: Roxie finishing the song in her mind. Velma just killed her husband and sister, caught in bed together, and Roxie soon does the same to a lover who lied when he promised to make her a star.

Both women wind up in prison represented by the same attorney, a slick jury-tamer named Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) and guarded by a corrupt matron, "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah). Outside those walls, a horde of tabloid reporters, led by Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski), plays up every detail Flynn pushes their way about the murders. Chicago has resonance beyond its 1975 Broadway debut now that we've had O.J. Simpson's trial, with a subtext of celebrity tweaking the legal process seeming more satirical than ever, deftly sketched in a screenplay by Oscar-winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters).

Each character's motivation is described in musical fantasies that seamlessly blend with real-life events. Roxie imagines her prison mates' empty claims of innocence as a Cell Block Tango, with each murderess declaring that her victims had it coming. Mama's susceptibility to bribes becomes Latifah's steamy explanation of what happens When You're Good to Mama. Sunshine and her colleagues become grotesque marionettes tugged by Roxie's alibi that We Both Reached for the Gun. The pitiful niceness of Roxie's gullible husband (John C. Reilly) is transparent enough to make him feel like Mr. Cellophane.

As a director, Marshall understands that musical numbers work best onscreen in medium- to long-range shots with as few edits and closeups as aesthetically possible -- the antithesis of MTV sensibilities. Many of the glances are intended to highlight Fosse's trademark moves. Marshall uses a few cuts to make Gere appear to be a better tap dancer than he probably is, and numbers with minimal footwork, such as Latifah's and O'Reilly's showcase, need a few camera-angle embellishments. Mostly, Marshall pulls back, allowing us to admire John Myhre's snazzy sets and some scintillating dancers, not the least of which are, surprisingly, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones.

As Roxie, Zellweger nails the most memorable female role in a musical since, well, Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Her adorably pinched face and sudden sincerity are perfect for the character's posing as a wronged woman, with sneering asides regularly informing us of Roxie's true colors. Zellweger's impressively bold singing and limber dancing make her the cinematic reincarnation of young Shirley MacLaine, sometimes with just a crinkle of her nose.

Zeta-Jones conveys Velma's icy sensuality with flair, although the role's importance has been slightly diminished with the exclusion of her big number, When Velma Takes the Stand. Gere has never appeared so loose and carefree onscreen, yet he's still fairly bland for such a showy character. Singing isn't his forte, but he's game. It would be interesting to consider what John Travolta or Kevin Spacey, actors previously considered for the role, could have done with Billy's requirements.

But why waste time second-guessing a masterpiece? Chicago is the lone film from the past year that can be expected to hold up 30 years from now as a standard for its genre, as Cabaret is today. I'm sure Lord of the Rings fans will disagree, but special effects will continue to improve to the point that Frodo's adventure will eventually seem as comparably primitive as Star Wars. The human precision of Chicago -- the way bodies, voices and imagination transcend the screen -- will always be marvelous.

Chicago

  • Grade: A
  • Director: Rob Marshall
  • Cast: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Christine Baranski, Taye Diggs, Lucy Liu
  • Screenplay: Bill Condon, based on the Broadway musical by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb
  • Rating: PG-13; sexual situations, profanity, violence
  • Running time: 113 min.

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