In Chicago, the guilty live happily ever after, the innocent are neither rewarded nor even admired, and no one sits in judgment of the whole rotten system, while the audience is expected to leave not shaken and challenged but humming "All That Jazz." One can call this a "cautionary tale" if one wishes, just as one can say that the tree falling in the woods makes a sound whether anyone hears it or not; but to do so is only to say how one has chosen to define one’s terms.
Based on actual events from the roaring ’20’s that were first the basis of a non-musical play and a pair of non-musical films before being turned into a musical by Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb, and John Kander, Chicago comes to the big screen following the success of the previous year’s Moulin Rouge!
Like Moulin Rouge!, Chicago involves sordid goings-on in a rather seamy milieu; but where the earlier film tried to contrast its dissolute ambiance with heart-warming sincerity and idealism, Chicago is cynical to the core.
That’s actually almost refreshing, in a way. In contrast to Moulin Rouge, which essentially glossed prostitution and decadence as mere foibles, Chicago is able to treat its dodgy subject matter with sharp satire and black humor. Witness the rousing production numbers showcasing, for example, the defiant unrepentance of a half-dozen death-row murderesses ("Cell Block Tango"), or the manipulability of the press ("We Both Reached For the Gun").
On the other hand, Chicago has nothing to counterbalance its own cynicism: Of the two innocent characters, one is a pathetic sap, the other is a pious sheep to the slaughter, and both are basically victims. There’s no moral counterpoint, no character capable of putting the film’s decadence and absurdity into perspective.
In spite of all this, as directed by first-time feature film director-choreographer Rob Marshall, who also choreographed the TV "Annie" and "Cinderella," Chicago often manages to overcome these difficulties, delivering darkly humorous, rousing entertainment.
The story is based on the real-life exploits of "jazz slayers" Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger, Nurse Betty) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Mask of Zorro), who use their media infamy to their own advantage.
The film opens with one of its strongest production numbers, Velma Kelly’s jazz-club performance of All That Jazz, while vaudeville wannabe Roxie looks on in awe. Velma’s routine is supposed to be a sister act, but later we learn why Velma is alone: She had discovered her husband and sister in bed together, and shot them both. Not long afterwards, Roxie, learning that the lover she’d been hoping would get her a gig lied about his connections to get her into bed, shoots him and winds up in stir as well.
Roxie is carted away to the Cookhouse County Jail, where she meets Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah) who runs murderer’s row on a very lucrative favoritism. Anything, Roxie soon learns, is possible for a price, including the services of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the "razzle-dazzle" lawyer who has never lost a case for a female client.
In an ordinary musical, characters simply break into song and dance as if it were natural, creating a stagey, artificial ambiance. Here, Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon and first-time feature film director Marshall take a different route, combining the strengths of stage and screen by playing freely with reality and fantasy with Calvin-and-Hobbes impunity.
As any drama student knows, one of the strengths of the theater is its propensity to eschew "reality" and head straight for the underlying metaphor. Conversely, mainstream cinema, even when depicting fantastic or absurd subject matter, has often boxed itself into a kind of straightforward realism of treatment. What Chicago does is to combine the imaginative conceits of vaudevillian stage with the visual freedom of cinema by intercutting between a relatively realistic depiction of events and stagey musical interpretations of those same events.
The story is staged principally through the eyes of the main character, Roxie. Throughout the course of the film, we constantly see two different versions of the same events: what’s actually happening, and what Roxie’s vaudeville-soaked imagination conjures from real-world events — fantasy sequences that reveal the inner meaning of events in her mind.
Thus, for example, in Roxie’s first press conference, the members of the press as well as Roxie herself are alternately seen as real people and as marionettes and dummies on the stage performing "We Both Reached For the Gun." The conceit of Roxie and the press as puppets could be realized on the stage, but Marshall exploits the capabilities of the cinematic form, not only by shuttling between reality and fantasy, but also with surreal shots of Billy Flynn above the stage, larger than life, controlling the puppet press — an effect impossible in the theater, but unlikely to be found in a nonmusical film.
Likewise, in the trial scene Marshall successfully wove together the usual expectancy — the sepia colored court, the call of witnesses and cross-examinations, with a circus occupying the same place and time.
Although none of the leads are primarily known as musical talents, Zeta-Jones, who first started in London’s West End, has a powerful alto and strong stage presence, and her singing and dancing dominates every number she’s in. Though she easily upstages Zellweger, the latter’s breathy singing voice isn’t bad, and she’s certainly a game dancer; her skinny frame, however, is too gaunt for the Marilyn Monroe look she takes on for her glamorous fantasy numbers. (The "Cell Block Tango" dancers are also on the emaciated side, a trait only heightened by their costumes.) Gere is fine, and seems to be having fun.
Among the supporting cast, Queen Latifah is unsurprisingly excellent in her big production number, "When You’re Good to Mama," though she’s a little flat in the in ordinary dramatic scenes, and is thankfully somewhat toned-down from her more lesbian stage counterpart. John C. Reilly (The Hours) is effective as usual in the role of the clueless husband, and achieves genuine pathos in his heartwrenching solo "Mr. Cellophane."
Yet as Roxie and Velma go on to trade on their publicity as bad-girl sweethearts with a joint vaudeville act, one has to wonder whether if this isn’t a cynical case of life following art — a film that’s not only about playing to fickle public tastes with razzle-dazzle, naughtiness, and not one but two bodacious babes, but is actually itself playing to fickle public tastes with razzle-dazzle and naughtiness and two bodacious babes. Are we meant to be appalled by the way the film’s merry murderesses play the system, or are we merely meant to be entertained and titillated?
In a climactic scene, Roxie and Velma sing "Nowadays," a winking hymn to decadent modernity:
"Nowadays / You can like the life you’re living
You can live the life you like
You can even marry Harry / But mess around with Ike
And that’s good, isn’t it? Grand, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? Swell, isn’t it? Fun, isn’t it…"
Is it or isn’t it? Chicago doesn’t commit. If you see it, bring your own moral compass.
Damning with faint praise? More like praising with faint damns. Moulin Rouge! is a failure: a towering monument of wasted potential, of lost opportunity, of good ideas gone bad and bad ideas gone amok. It’s got the same attention-grabbing take-no-prisoners style (though on a far larger scale) as Luhrmann’s first film, the sublime Strictly Ballroom; but that film had something Moulin Rouge! can’t be bothered with: characters who emerged from their situations as real and likeable people. Moulin Rouge! even recycles plot elements from the earlier film: A naive but talented young outsider falls for a driven, unattainable professional whose Svengali-like handlers oppose the relationship for self-interested reasons. There’s even a climactic scene that mirrors the grand finale of Ballroom in such specific detail that Luhrmann could sue himself for plagiarism; but what he can’t replicate is the first film’s heart appeal.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.