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By Admin | January 7, 2003

A line from the song “Razzle Dazzle” comes to mind when watching–or, more specifically, listening–to Richard Gere’s performance in the long-aborning film version of Bob Fosse’s Roaring ’20s-set Broadway hit “Chicago”: “Long as you keep ’em way off balance/How can they spot you got no talents?” That’s the only reason I can rationalize the effusive praise, including a Golden Globe nomination, for his performance here. Certainly he’s passable when simply speaking (after all, exuding smarm is Gere’s strongest suit), and he does surprisingly decently with a big tap dance number. But singing? I’m not sure if his nasal, bad-Al-Jolson-impression vocalizing can qualify as such, and in so doing he murders the character. The character Gere plays, attorney Billy Flynn, is sleaze, to be sure, but he’s also a super-smooth seducer, and a convincing one at that–a quality that generally comes through in his singing. With Gere every bit as off-putting in that area, Billy’s big bag o’ bamboozling bluster seems that much more exaggerated and ridiculous and thus the story’s satire of celebrity and the legal system a bit more cartoonish.
What makes Gere’s off-key performance all the more frustrating is that first-time feature director Rob Marshall gets so much so right otherwise; in translation to stage to screen, “Chicago” has retained all of its deliciously mean spirit without a hint of Hollywood sugarcoating. It certainly helps that Marshall’s casting of the two central characters, publicity-hungry rival murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, is spot-on. That Catherine Zeta-Jones does a bang-up job with the latter role isn’t necessarily a surprise, considering she started her career hoofing and belting on the London stage. What does come as a shock is how the already-famously-ravishing starlet here achieves an even more stunning level of sensuality; sultrily singing and sashaying across the screen in the opening number “All That Jazz,” Zeta-Jones gets the film off to a sexy, high-energy start, and the film flat-out electrifies whenever she’s on screen. Zellweger, whose previous musical inexperience made her an especially unlikely casting choice (though perhaps not as unlikely as Gere), proves unexpectedly able to carry the torch with the film’s second number, “Funny Honey,” exposing a sneaky, dark edge and coquettish sexuality that usually stays buried under a girl next door persona. When the stage is all hers–literally–in her midway showcase number “Roxie,” she carries it like an old pro, turning a bare black set into a dazzling place.
Or should I say “a razzle-dazzling place.” “Chicago” is, after all, all about the showmanship of its music and performers, with the cynical plot about upstart wannabe Roxie and veteran vaudevillian Velma fighting for the spotlight, for stardom, and for freedom with the help of oil slick Billy most definitely a secondary concern. Marshall stages the narrative scenes in a fairly pedestrian manner and pulls out all the glitzy stops for the musical ones, reflecting the new-for-the-movies device devised by screenwriter Bill Condon: all of the numbers are fantasies sprung from Roxie’s vaudeville-obsessed mind, à la Björk in Dancer in the Dark. (The “Cell Block Tango” number, which builds from the noise of a leaky faucet, especially brings that other film to mind.) For the most part, the conceit works, though at times it’s a stretch, as in “Mr. Cellophane,” the big song for Roxie’s decent-to-a-fault husband, Amos (John C. Reilly, displaying a solid set of pipes). Marshall and editor Martin Walsh’s giddy, flashy, MTV-style cutting sometimes works against these money sequences, particularly Marshall’s own choreography (ironic, considering “Chicago” the stage show is primarily known for its dancing), but the energy of the performances and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s enduring score push the musical scenes and the entire film over any hurdle–yes, even including that misbegotten casting of Gere.

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