Easily the best film of a very forgettable year in film, Chicago showed that the film musical still has some force in today’s Hollywood. Granted, Renee Zeilweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere cannot compare in talent to the likes of Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly; but the sheer visual energy and narrative play of Chicago more than compensates for the presence of “stars” where “talent” would have been in years past.
The best way to describe Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the late and great Bob Fosses 1975 Broadway show is that it is Moulin Rouge for adults. Electric in its cinematography and editing, full of knock-em dead Broadway numbers, like “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango,” Chicago also manages to put across an old-fashioned Prohibition-era black comedy.
It’s dark and it’s naughty and it’s informed, a cynical Cinderella story for people experienced in corrupt city politics who still like to live in the city. This is the film for fans of Damon Runyan, for people who have Lords of the Levee on their shelf at home and who enjoy anecdotes about the days of Charles Tyson Yerkes. Chicago’s story is not nice, but it has a lot to say about the human condition.
Beyond its root in the Fosse musical, Chicago was based loosely on history, more directly on the dark 1942 film comedy Roxie Hart, directed by William Weltman. In that one Ginger Rogers played the title character, the ambitious climber who kills her lover and then manages to use the event as a platform for her own stage career, with the help of a slick lawyer of course, played then by Adolphe Menjou, in the Marshall Version by Richard Gere.
Renee Zeilweger is lovable, if not entirely plausible, as Roxie. Catherine Zeta-Jones, although maybe not worthy of the Oscar given her, is still fun to watch as she bumps and grinds through several very saucy numbers; she’s Velma, convicted murderer of her own sister, and former dance-partner. Gere is the slick lawyer. Billy Flynn, about as good as he usually is, and here showing a bit of the musical talent he flashed last in Copolla’s Cotton Club.
But it’s the secondary characters that make the film. Queen Latifah, certainly a rising star who can both sing and toss a comic line, plays the jail matron, “Mama Morion”; Taye Diggs, plays the slick bandleader who orchestrates the action on stage and narrates the story, a reflection of giants like Cab Galloway; and my favorite, the oafish husband of Roxie, Amos Hart, dupe of all, is played with great open-eyed idiocy by John C. Reilly.
I went into this film not wanting to like it because its trailer boasted a bit too much and because it’s stars didn’t seem up to the level of the Broadway show. But, I was won over. Especially when the film ended at a crisp one hour and fifty-three minutes, almost a miracle in contemporary cinema, here a testament to the thoughtfulness of the screenwriters and editors, who understood that in the theater you should wow them, then leave them begging for just one more.