Chicago (2002)

D: Rob Marshall
S: Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere

Chicago is a thoroughly misjudged attempt to film the popular stage musical which began life seventy years ago and has been revised often enough to bear yet another mutation. The problem with this version is that in an effort to make the show more 'cinematic' director Rob Marshall has made what seem to have been two fatal decisions. Firstly, the (true) story of flapper Roxie Hart, who would literally kill to be in show business, is given a 'real world' context by scenes staged in 'historical' space which give the basic details of her crime, incarceration, and sensational trial. The problems begin when, in an attempt to create a sense of the reckless pace and confused sensationalism of the period in which it is set, Chicago is a hyperkinetic, kaleidoscopic, impressionistic postmodern fantasia upon iconographical elements of the real. 'Real' Chicago is almost as crazed as the deliberately excessive world of the stage musical which serves as its alter ego. To further compound the difficulties, this 'real world' action is intercut with a restaging of the spectacular song and dance numbers from the show, complete with bold, expressionistic backdrops and fetishistic female costumes: a bombastic celebration of excess matched by loud, brassy songs full of gusto and garters.

The idea is sound enough insofar as 'broadening out' the Broadway version is concerned, but the execution is clumsy. The pace is overwhelming, with too much intercutting meshing poorly with the excessively quick cutting of the action itself. The editing is also is at the core of the second directorial misjudgment. Instead of figuring out how to recast the song and dance for the cinema in the light of the additional 'realism', the film faithfully mounts the big numbers in all of their spectacular glory (designed for a stage space which invites the audience to view the settings in their totality), then proceeds to chop them into tiny pieces. The result is a cluttered montage which fragments what was visually coherent on stage into inexpressive detritus. The result is very busy but very empty. Further hampered by a lack of particularly memorable songs and a relatively shallow and obvious thematic basis, the film has nothing at its core to make it worthwhile on any level beyond the most rudimentary of distractions. A successor to Cabaret it is not.

To be fair to its makers, Chicago is a handsome production. It has been mounted with due attention to detail and its performers seem to be giving their all. It is perhaps another misjudgment though that nonmusical stars have been given the leading roles in what is plainly an attempt to sell the package. Handsomeness seems to have been as much a feature of the casting as the production design, with perennial lightweight heartthrob Richard Gere (Unfaithful) hogging the spotlight as the attorney Billy Flynn, who will say and do anything to make his case into a show in which he is the star performer, popular light comedienne Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones' Diary) taking the role of the starry-eyed Roxie Hart who is willing to play along if it will set her free and get her name in the papers at the same time, and the ever-fetching Catherine Zeta-Jones (Entrapment) filling out the role of Velma Kelly, another 'Jazz Killer' whose rise and fall intersects with Roxie's throughout their lives. Capable performers each in their own right, all three work hard to pull of the trick of being jacks of all trades in the way that a previous generation of Hollywood starts did simply because of their roots. The results vary wildly, even from number to number, with only Jones really giving the impression of star quality. Queen Latifah is also good in a smaller supporting role, but with Gere and Zellweger demanding the audience's attention for most of the film, it is not an entirely comfortable viewing experience. Neither is a natural for the job, and both seem to have to try much to hard to do what really should come naturally.

Chicago's most effective scene is the one which seems to try least hard. In a moment of reflection which borders on mawkish (it is certainly sentimental), John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights), playing Roxie's dumb but well-intentioned husband, performs a touching little number in which he likens himself to a 'cellophane man' -- virtually invisible. As with every other scene in the film, the 'real world' is intercut with the 'performance space' of the musical. In the 'real world', the character is turned away from Flynn's office after a meeting, dimly realising how insignificant he is in the game the attorney is playing with the law and the media. In the 'performance', he is dressed as a clown and sings while doing a soft-shoe shuffle on an empty stage. Though it is less busy because there is simply less going on, the scene is also less busy in the sense that the intercutting is less intrusive. The film moves cleanly between realities at a pace which enhances the communicative dimensions of both. It is clear from this scene that Marshall's method was sound in principle, but that the material has ultimately defeated itself.

There has been much talk of the 'rebirth' of the musical, especially since the success of Moulin Rouge. Chicago is nowhere near the film that Moulin Rouge was. In fact it is barely a film at all. It falls uncomfortably between the traditional bad hybrid of film and theatre which frequently results in bad attempts to 'open up' stage action for the screen and the kind of genuine cinematic re-envisioning of the genre offered by Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge. There are those for whom the film will probably prove an enjoyable evening's viewing, and for whom the whole confused mess will actually seem like a coherently spectacular experience. Not all spectacles are equal though, and the spectacle of a film flailing desperately to win love and admiration is not unlike the story at its centre -- cautionary.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.