By Admin | December 9, 2002

When watching the new film version of the Broadway musical “Chicago,” one thought stays strong: they don’t make movies like this any more. In fact, the last time they made films like this was back in the late 1960s when elephantine debacles like “Star!” and “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Goodbye Mr. Chips” nearly destroyed the musical genre and bankrupted Hollywood.
“Chicago” is a failure, but that should not come as a surprise. Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the original 1975 Broadway production, was long baffled in making a film of the show and eventually gave up trying. Cursed with a silly storyline involving two 1920s showgirls who achieve tabloid celebrity status for murders-of-passion and crippled with a Kander and Ebb score that lacked a single hit tune, “Chicago” owed its theatrical success (both in its original production and in the current popular Broadway revival) to the Fosse showmanship and to the star power of the various actors who strutted the boards and made the inanity feel important and entertaining.
As a film, however, the project was kicked around for a quarter-century, and at one point Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein was supposedly so desperate to get the film into motion that he offered the directing assignment to Barbra Streisand. La Babs, in a rare act of modesty, recognized the limits to both her talents and the project and wisely declined.
However, Rob Marshall was not as cautious as Streisand and “Chicago” bears his credit as both director and choreographer. But the film does not contain one single frame that Marshall can rightly claim as his own. If anything, “Chicago” is the ultimate slavish ode to the distinct Fosse style. Marshall clearly over studied Fosse’s output, and “Chicago” plays like a deja vu game where pages from the Fosse book have been recklessly ripped out and scattered wildly across the screen. There is the visceral editing and rude pacing of “All That Jazz,” the low-angle tracking camera movements and garish production design of “Cabaret,” and even the surreal theatricality and hyperactive choreography of “Sweet Charity.” At times, it feels like “Chicago” was made on carbon paper rather than celluloid, and Marshall stupidly stages every musical number as if it was an end-of-the-world show-stopper. This over-the-top effect creates a constant energy crisis as the film repeatedly dies and roars back to high-volume along with the music, which (truth be told) never rises to the show-stopper level.
But where Marshall fails is copying Fosse’s special talent for bringing the very best from his actors. Fosse was the rare director who knew how to rein in larger than life talents who always seemed too big for the big screen (Sammy Davis Jr. in “Sweet Charity,” Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret,” even Eric Roberts in “Star 80”) while igniting normally stolid players to fiery performances (Valerie Perrine in “Lenny,” Mariel Hemingway in “Star 80”).
If Fosse was still with us, it is possible he could have worked his alchemist-worthy magic on this film’s cast. Marshall doesn’t, to the loss of all involved. As Roxie Hart, the floozy who finds stardom without earning respect, Renee Zellweger never gets a handle on her part. She seems savvy when her character is supposed to be clueless and clueless when her character is supposed to be savvy. Her musical skills are adequate, but her on-screen persona is not helped by costuming and make-up which try to recall the glamour of Marilyn Monroe rather than the 1920s icons which would be in closer keeping to the plot. Even with this anachronistic appearance, Zellweger is strictly marzipan compared to the Monroe gold.
As Velma Kelly, the cynical cabaret star who finds herself upstaged by Roxie, Catherine Zeta-Jones is more than capable as both a dancer and a singer. However, the Welsh actress is sorely deficient as a star. Yes, she is a good actress–but the role of Velma requires a diva, not an actress, and Zeta-Jones lacks the personality and magnetism to make this role work to her advantage. Ironically, Chita Rivera (who originated the role on Broadway in the 1975 show) has a surprise cameo appearance in the film and she generates more electricity in her half-minute on the screen than Zeta-Jones does in the course of the entire feature.
Even worse is the casting of Billy Flynn, the sleazy-breezy lawyer who turns courtrooms into carnivals and killers into celebrities. This is a part that is a Christmas bonanza for any actor with an unrepentant hammy streak, so why the role went to Richard Gere is a mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot. Gere, who has been sleepwalking through films for the past decade, was never the most flamboyant performer even when he was at the peak of his stardom in the early 1980s. In fairness, he tries hard to make it work, but the role cruelly reveals the highly defined limitations of his talent. Imagine a Romero zombie crooning and tap-dancing and you have an idea what he is doing here.
The void created by the stars creates uneven gaps that the supporting cast tries to fill, with varying degrees of success. Queen Latifah, as the prison warden who profits from her celebrity inmates, brings a raffish charm that recalls Pearl Bailey in her prime. However, it is not her movie and she is not on-screen enough to make “Chicago” roll. Christine Baranski, as an obnoxious reporter, is on-screen too much and seems to think the film belongs to her. John C. Reilly, as Roxie’s sad sack husband, is subtle as an anvil while Lucy Liu, as a hostile heiress who fatally shoots her philandering husband, has little to offer but an extended guest appearance and a token quota-stuffer for Asian-American talent.
“Chicago” serves as a sad reminder of why so few movie musicals are being made today. The lack of adequate material, coupled with the absence of talent to bring this material to the screen, equals a sum of artistic and entertainment zero. If Miramax can pull in audiences to see this film, it will be a credit to their persistent marketing skills and not to the rickety mess they are trying to coax audiences into accepting.

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