Friday, January 31, 2003

Chicago / ** (2002)

Showgirls kill their cheating lovers and claim to have never remembered it happening. Innocent and naive showbiz hopefuls shoot people who fail to deliver on the promise of a spotlight. Cellblock wardens supply inmates with all sorts of privileges and furnishings at a very steep price. Hotshot lawyers promise acquittal of any crime at an even steeper price. And crazy women convicts compete for press attention like rival celebrities drunk on media buzz, fearful of up-and-coming murderesses who could potentially outdo their own elaborate streaks of crime. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Chicago—the city that never shuts up.

In first-time director Rob Marshall's flashy and silly screen adaptation of the highly famous Bob Fosse stage show (which I have never actually seen), musical numbers, scathing dialogue exchanges and quirky camera movements are thrown at the audience without shape or reason, as if the effort is simply there to provide the filmmaker an excuse to exercise his newfound knowledge of the movie camera. No, this isn't the masterful, brilliant work that we've been hearing about so often from its admirers—on a scale wide enough to even make the disappointment of "Road to Perdition" look meaningless, "Chicago" is a vapid and endless exercise of miscalculations, an often irritating musical juncture between voice and dance that never knows where it's going, how it wants the audience to react, or why it is even trying.

The film stars Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart, the semi-heroine of the stage show who, at the opening of the story, is having an affair with a man who can secure two things she has so desperately wanted in life: fame and fortune. Unfortunately, following a steamy romp with the attractive young fellow, Roxie's hopes of making it big are quickly dashed by his cold brush-off, and in anger, she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead, his body soon discovered at the apartment doorway by the landlady, the police... and Roxie's own husband Amos (John C. Reilly). Not a moment too soon, the unflinching murderess is whisked off into the local women's prison, awaiting trial for homicide and potentially facing the state's death penalty if convicted of the crime.

While in lock-up, Roxie meets the kind but greedy Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a former major stage performer whom Roxie shares a little too much in common with. Other colorful people pass into her prison life, too: Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski), the local woman of the press who is fascinated by Roxie's desperate claims of innocence, and Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the hotshot lawyer who promises to get anyone acquitted of any crime provided they have the right finances. Mrs. Hart doesn't exactly appreciate prison life, but when her face starts showing up on every newspaper in town, she realizes that her recent stint as a murderess has actually given her the publicity she so desperately sought over the years. Needless to say, she doesn't so easily want to give it up, but when it all starts interfering with Velma's high-profile crime spree and threatens to sideswipe the dark-haired beauty's own media coverage, both women find themselves in competition with each other. Oh yeah, and they both share the same lawyer, too.

In between all of these details, musical numbers unfold—most of which, I guess, take place simply from Roxie's own imagination—in which other crucial plot points are revealed. A couple of them, at least as isolated scenes, even borderline pure brilliance; the opening sequence in which Zeta-Jones zealously belts out "All That Jazz" to a room of packed onlookers is particularly striking, while the "Cellblock Tango," which features women inmates revealing their shaky run-ins with the law—and double-crossing men—to Roxie, is vibrant and fun (particularly during a repeated lyric that allows the ladies to admit with biting honesty that "he had it coming!").

But Marshall's spirited direction of these two numbers does little to aid the rest of the picture, which misses every mark of enthusiasm and personality it possibly can. His film lacks almost any sense of visual atmosphere; for nearly the whole two-hour running time, the movie has a visual presence that is claustrophobic, trite and sometimes infuriating. Lots of flashy images and smoke-filled nightclubs pop onto screen to serve as the foundation for the musical elements, but they don't ever really go anywhere meaningful. It's as if Marshall simply xeroxed all of Fosse's offbeat visual ideas and threw them on screen without any of the necessary forethought needed to make them pop out. The script by Bill Condon, an irritating exercise of clichés and insipid narrative twists from beginning to end, doesn't help matters, either.

Convincing performers like Latifah and Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, find themselves undermined by a couple of obvious miscasts. Zellweger's presence as Roxie generally emerges as stale and labored (particularly during the last half of the film), although it reeks of class in contrast to Richard Gere's thrust as Billy Flynn, which is so aggravating and cringe-inducing that scraping your nails down a chalkboard is likely to be less painful. If you are aware of the long and tumultuous past that "Chicago" has endured in being translated to motion picture, you'll know that these roles often passed from one actor to the next like musical chairs. So who in their right mind thought Zellweger and Gere were the most appropriate choices for these roles, anyway?

I didn't hate "Chicago" on every level, at least; aside from the already-mentioned musical sequences which were well done, the movie does have the respectable task of setting up decent characterizations. Roxie and Velma have some cute scenes together (especially when they're nearly fighting tooth-and-nail), and I liked how the movie sometimes tried to upstage them by introducing new murderesses into the mix (albeit briefly). But what a bland and annoying experience this is! What a tiring, troublesome, awkward mess! And what an overrated piece of work for so many people in the awards field to be fixated on! At a time when brilliant products like "Adaptation" and "The Pianist" are barely reeling in audiences across the nation, it's such an incredible shame that so much attention is being paid to such a mediocre product.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Catherine Zeta-Jones: Velma Kelly
Renée Zellweger: Roxanne 'Roxie' Hart
Richard Gere: Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah: Matron 'Mama' Morton
John C. Reilly: Amos Hart
Lucy Liu: Kitty Baxter
Christine Baranski: Mary Sunshine

Produced by Jennifer Berman, Don Carmody, Sam Crothers, Julie Goldstein, Neil Meron, Meryl Poster, Marty Richards, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein and Craig Zadan; Directed by Rob Marshall; Screenwritten by Bill Condon; based on the Broadway stage musical by Bob Fosse

Musical (US); Rated PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements; Running Time - 114 Minutes

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