Synopsis: Winner of six Academy Awards (2002) including Best Picture and starring sexy Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary), Best Supporting Actress winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic), Best Supporting Actress nominee Queen Latifah (Bringing Down the House) and Golden Globe winner Richard Gere (Unfaithful)-Chicago is a dazzling spectacle cheered by audiences and critics alike! At a time when crimes of passion result in celebrity headlines, nightclub sensation Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) and spotlight-seeking Roxie Hart (Zellweger) both find themselves sharing space on Chicago’s famed Murderess Row! They also share Billy Flynn (Gere), the town’s slickest lawyer with a talent for turning notorious defendants into local legends. But in Chicago, there’s only room for one legend! Also starring John C. Reilly (Gangs of New York) and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels).
eyelights: Queen Latifah. Catherine Zeta-Jones. Colm Feore. the sexiness of the musical numbers.
eyesores: Renee Zellweger. Richard Gere. the anachronism of the musical numbers.
“This trial, the whole world, it’s all show business.”
Alright… let’s get this straight: ‘Chicago’ is based on the 1996 revival of a 1975 musical that was based on a 1926 Broadway play which was based on true incidents that took place in Chicago in 1924. Phew! Released in 2002, this version of ‘Chicago’ was directed by Rob Marshall, who was choreographer for the television version of ‘Victor Victoria‘, and starred Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
It was a massive success, both critically and commercially, grossing over 300 million dollars worldwide and being nominated for and winning countless awards.
The plot is as follows: Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) is a cabaret singer who is arrested for having murdered her husband and her sister, with whom she used to perform her act. Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is a fan of hers who dreams of also being a star, but is collared for killing her lover. Finding themselves in the same jail, they end up competing for media attention and for the services of a hot shot lawyer, Billy Flynn (Gere).
The picture is interesting because the musical numbers are almost all set in Roxie’s imagination: every moment that she experiences is translated into a glamourous daydream of hers – so ‘Chicago’ constantly alternates between a gritty look and a glitzy one. This approach made the film watchable for me: had the film been a flat-out musical, I likely would have found it very challenging to get through it.
Because, although the production of the numbers was quite excellent, and although the choreography is superb, I simply couldn’t get into the songs at all; it’s just not a style that I appreciate. But I have to admit that the numbers were superb, and they were staged much like they would be on Broadway, which is something that I particularly appreciated – it made total sense given that it’s from Roxie’s P.O.V.
I also had a difficult time with the story, which is about corruption and, in particular, the shameless quest for attention. Although this couldn’t be more topical, it irked me to see these two murderesses succeed at becoming celebrities – particularly because, in this day and age, stardom is coveted at all costs as a farcical means of self-actualization. In that light, I simply couldn’t stomach its subject.
I also wasn’t that keen on the cast. While I thought that they all did commendable jobs, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching second-tier performers instead of the real deal. Perhaps it’s from watching all those ‘That’s Entertainment!‘ films lately (the classics, basically), or maybe it’s because I have pre-conceived notions about most of them, but I was left most unimpressed with their performances.
- Renee Zellwegger: Full admission: I’m no great fan of Zellweger. Her poofy, pouty lips and pained expression bother me. And, while she does an able job of going through the routines, the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking that I was watching a high school girl eagerly trying to fit the bill – but not quite making it. In a way, that’s totally appropriate for the character, but I would rather have seen someone with the physicality for it. Also, I couldn’t help but daydream of seeing a pairing of Charlize Theron and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Yum (whether Theron could pull it off is another matter, of course). I later discovered that she actually had the part before Marshall signed on to the project, after which she lost to Zellweger. Wow. I would love to know why. What a lost opportunity.
- Catherine Zeta-Jones: It’s funny, because Zeta-Jones cut her hair into a bob so that audiences could always see her face – that way there would be no doubt that she was doing all her own dancing. And yet, what impressed me the most was her singing. Oh, sure, she looked smoking hot (especially in contrast to the girlish Zellwegger), but I didn’t find her dance moves all that moving. She was good, but, after having seen Norma Powell in action, it’s hard to have perspective. Her singing (because it is claimed that they all sang their own songs), however, is where I thought she shone: there was an edge to it that I quite enjoyed, a throatiness that was drop-dead sexy. Unfortunately, the vocals seemed disconnected from her performances – which initially led me to believe that it was someone else’s voice and she was lip-synching.
- Richard Gere: Gere has never been a favourite of mine; he has a Novocained look in his face that sticks in my craw. His attempt at mixing drama and humour here was lackluster, and his dance moves didn’t impress me – in fact, there’s a tap number that is also supposed to be his own, but it’s cut in a way that it could have been anyone (and it probably is, no matter what they claim). He looks the part, I must admit, but that’s about all I can give him. Fact is, he wasn’t even close to being the first choice for the part. Hugh Jackman was offered the part, as was John Travolta (multiple times). And, you know what? That’s probably what I was picking up when I was getting that second-tier feeling.
- Queen Latifah: I really enjoyed Latifah in this. I always want to like her (I truly like her presence), but she doesn’t always deliver – her acting isn’t always top-notch. Here, however, she was just right for the part of Mama, the matron of the County Jail. And the picture, which is meant to be light: Latifah was able to play up the humour in a subtle way that was just right, was tough enough for the part, and could actually perform her own number in a credible way – having a musical background, she already knew how to do music videos (which is what each of these numbers are, really). To think that they had considered Kathy Bates in her stead. I really don’t see it. Not one bit. Latifah is perfect.
- John C. Reilly: I hate that Reilly had to play a dimwit again. He’s great for it, admittedly, but it feels like he’s typecast into playing morons and losers. Here, he didn’t quite imbue Amos, Roxie’s husband, with the gravity I would have expected of the part, but it’s supposed to be a light comedy so maybe that’s why. I was impressed with the one musical number he had, though: it felt as though he were singing for real, and he had these neat leg sweeps in his routine that he incorporated quite nicely. It’s not intricate, but it doesn’t have to be to make an impression. Part of that is obviously cemented by the fact that you don’t expect Reilly to pull it off so well. But he does. Admirably well, actually.
One of my key complaints about the musical numbers, from the onset, was that they were anachronistic. You have to remember that this takes place in 1924, and that it was a very different era on so many levels: there was no way that any of these numbers would have the lighting and set designs that they did here. And I suspect that the choreography is also much more modern than what one would have found back then.
Sadly, this impression stayed with me for the first half of the picture, after which I settled into it a bit more.
Still, for all my gripes about the musical numbers, the key performers, and musicals in general, there were a couple of numbers that I really enjoyed: There was the “Cell Block Tango”, featuring Velma and the other cell block girls, which was terrific because it told all of their backstories – and did so by flashing back and forth between the “real world” and Roxie’s interpretation. Plus which it was drop dead sexy (if totally incongruous).
There was also the “We Both Reached for the Gun” number, which was when Roxie and Billy hold their first press conference, in a bid to dictate the narrative, and which has (in Roxie’s version) Billy as the puppeteer and her as the dummy. It also had all of the journalists on strings, being pulled by Billy. It wasn’t especially original a concept, but it was extremely well done – and it was humourous too. Nice.
But, in the end, I was left less impressed with ‘Chicago’ than most people have been. It uses sex and stardom as selling points and does so convincingly, but I wasn’t sold on the abilities of its stars – and that’s a large part of what knocked it down for me. With a more able cast, I would have enjoyed the film a lot more, despite its lack of substance. As it stands, it’s a decent, but largely forgettable piece.
It is very unlikely that I will ever revisit ‘Chicago’.
Date of viewing: May 2, 2014