This review was changed on Dec. 12, 2002.
A stylish cast and some clever scripting solutions help “Chicago” make the transition from stage to screen with considerable appeal intact. But despite these assets, plus the enduring kick of the superlative Kander & Ebb song score, this film version dilutes a good deal of the live show’s sizzle and wit. First-time feature director Rob Marshall and Oscar-winning “Gods and Monsters” screenwriter Bill Condon have spun the dark tale of two murdering floozies into a widely palatable entertainment, but the long-gestating film comes up short in rhythm and personality. Pic could score midrange business with older crowds drawn by the novelty of its all-singing, all-dancing stars. Miramax’s awards-season push undoubtedly will be a major factor in the film’s commercial profile.
Originally directed, choreographed and co-authored in 1975 by Bob Fosse, then stripped back into what amounted almost to a concert staging with a jazz orchestra onstage in its considerably more successful 1996 revival, “Chicago” wasn’t an easy target for film. Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein and producer Martin Richards struggled for six years to pull the pic together.
The fundamental conundrum of how to sell a traditional musical to audiences unaccustomed to characters bursting into song was solved by Condon’s script, which reimagines the numbers as the fruit of a stagestruck chorine’s rich fantasy life, intercutting them with the parallel reality the songs narrate. However, while it effectively underlines points about the fleeting nature of fame, the indistinct line between celebrity and notoriety and the similarities between showbiz razzle-dazzle and a corrupt legal system, the film version boasts few significant innovations.
Much of the dialogue and jokes are word for word from the stage show, and conception of musical numbers strays very little. Pic also refers to numerous movie musicals, including a “Cabaret”-style nightclub opening.Viewed in terms of its attempt to resurrect the musical as a contemporary film genre, “Chicago” is way ahead of lifeless blunders like “A Chorus Line.” But it’s arguably less buoyant or inventive than recent unconventional, and artistically controversial, tuners such as “Moulin Rouge” or “Dancer in the Dark.”
Set in the Windy City in the Roaring ’20s, the jazz-age story opens on sultry vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) taking the stage solo in what’s previously been a sister act after surprising her husband with the offending sibling and rubbing out the adulterous duo. In the audience to witness her arrest is unworldly Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a chorus girl with dreams of stardom, married to gullible dolt Amos (John C. Reilly).
A few weeks later, Roxie wises up that her lover (Dominic West) has been stringing her along with promises to get her into showbiz. She guns him down in a fit of rage and winds up joining Velma on death row.
Making use of shrewdly connected prison warden Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah), Velma has lined up ace lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who keeps her media spotlight burning as he prepares for her trial. Roxie, too, secures Flynn’s services when Amos stumps up a hefty cash advance. The lawyer concocts an elaborate convent-girl-led-astray story for Roxie, making her the darling of the media and relegat-ing Velma to the back pages. When a new murderess threatens to steal her thunder, Roxie consolidates her press profile by announcing she’s carrying Amos’ child.
The central relationship between Roxie and Velma carries less weight than the interaction between Roxie and Flynn. This undermines the effectiveness of the final act, already a weakness in the stage version.Best known for the 1999 TV remake of “Annie,” Marshall has a solid back-ground in musical theater that well serves the musical segs, which shift confidently between fantasy and reality. The device works nicely in numbers like Amos’ acknowledgment of his own insignificance, “Mr. Cellophane”; the death-row dames’ account of their misdeeds, “Cell Block Tango”; and in smartly staged nonmusical setpieces like the historic first hanging of a woman.
But too often the cross-cutting interrupts the rhythm of the songs to clutter the action, instilling a certain frustration at never seeing a song or dance number played out in full.Editor Martin Walsh cuts the film like a trailer, giving a semblance of briskness but skimping on the characters’ dimensionality. The fast cutting also dulls some of the shine from the two leads’ dance accomplishments. Zeta-Jones reveals herself to be a full-voiced belter and a more-than-creditable hoofer, making Velma a savvy, conniving but sympathetic temptress untroubled by moral scruples.
Zellweger also measures up well enough in the song-and-dance department, but convinces more in Roxie’s initial persona as a borderline innocent than later, as she becomes more calculating and cold-hearted. As the character whose dreams bring much of the action to life, she remains a somewhat pallid figure.
Gere has fun embodying a soulless charmer in circus-master Flynn, but his lackluster courtroom-climax tap routine makes one long for a real dancer in the role. Making the Matron a sharp exploiter with her eye firmly on the dollar but not completely without loyalty, Latifah socks across the saucy “When You’re Good to Mama.” But the character’s rueful ballad “Class” — arguably one of the show’s best songs — has been dropped from the film, despite being clearly set up.
Reilly is sweetly touching as the trusting sap, while Christine Baranski is arch and amusing as bleeding-heart radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Lucy Liu appears briefly as a socialite hellcat, and Chita Rivera, who played Velma in the original Fosse produc-tion alongside Gwen Verdon, cameos as a prison habitue.
Marshall’s choreography retains some distinctive Fosse influences, particularly in the opening “All That Jazz” number — nevertheless hampered more than any other song by excessive cutting away from the dancers. Australian lenser Dion Beebe (“Praise,” “Holy Smoke”) doesn’t always shoot the dance segs to best advantage, but places the action on a rich canvas of dark tones and bloody reds, combining with John Myhre’s sharp production design and Colleen Atwood’s slinky costumes to create a seamless look that blends theatricality with reality.
A new song written by Kander & Ebb and sung by Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, called “I Move On,” is being added to the end credits, but was not in place on prints being press-screened.