By Joe Lozito
They may both have geographical titles, but the musical "Chicago" is a far cry from "Oklahoma". "Chicago" has Bob Fosse behind it, the man who brought a much-needed cynicism onto the musical stage. Who else would have written a musical about headline-hogging divas on Chicago's Murderess' Row? Veteran stage choreographer, Rob Marshall, directs the film adaptation with an almost non-stop visceral energy. Each musical number builds to such a frantic climax that the audience is nearly moved to applaud the actors on screen. Two numbers in particular ("Razzle-Dazzle" and "We both reached for the gun") are perfectly scathing attacks on the media circus which is a tribute to the musical's lasting power.
In between the song-and-dance routines, Mr. Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon keep the dialog fast and simple. These are not moments of character development as much as segues, but no one's here to see the acting. The conceit of this filmed musical is that the songs seem to occur in the heroine's imagination. When she hears of famous lawyer Billy Flynn, we are treated to the juxtaposition of Roxie's romanticized vision of Flynn versus his actual demeanor. Oddly, almost all the musical numbers occur in a standard proscenium setting - which is a surprise and something of a let down. If you're going to film a musical, why not open it up to 360 degrees?
At heart, "Chicago" the film is a throwback to the Hollywood musicals of the 50s (with slightly more profanity, to be sure). If it never achieves the kind of transcendent power of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge", it never tries to. But it does owe a debt of gratitude to that 2001 masterpiece which injected new life into the live-action musical genre. "Chicago's" two stars both give performances reminiscent of Nicole Kidman in "Rouge". As Roxie Hart, the blonde wannabe starlet on trial for the murder of her lover, Renee Zellweger uses the baby doll pouting that has become so tiresome in her recent efforts to great affect. Catherine Zeta-Jones, tapping into her previous career as a dancer on the London stage, finally fulfills on the promise she made back in "The Mask of Zorro". She's not just a pretty face. Her performance above the others is a wonderful transformation.
Rounding out the cast, the reliable John C. Reilly gives yet another in a string of great performances as Roxie's cuckolded husband Amos. And Queen Latifah is perfectly cast as prison warden 'Mama' Morton. Only Richard Gere, who seems like a good fit for slimy lawyer Billy Flynn comes off weak. His voice is passable, but he has enough trouble emoting during standard films, let alone a musical. Too often he falls back on his now signature blinking stare. But aside from that, the actors all acquit themselves wonderfully (pun intended).