Oscar Movie Month: "Chicago" Review

Photo Credit: Miramax Films

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Rating: PG-13

Length: 113 minutes

Release Date: January 24, 2003

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Genre: Comedy / Crime / Musical


The film "Chicago" has big tap shoes to fill. In the 1920s, the wild excesses of the Jazz Age included a spate of attractive female murderers. These femme fatales made headlines, leading to a cultural obsession with the doomed and dangerous women. Maurine Dallas Watkins chose to create scandal with a pen, not a pistol. She reported on the crimes and later wrote a play, which John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse would eventually turn into a musical. In the 1990s, the musical saw a revival. By 2002, director Rob Marshall decided it was time to resurrect the tale yet again. With such a long and checkered past, it might seem that "Chicago" has been overplayed. Yet, the themes of murder, scandal and celebrity culture seem to resonate with every new generation. The film version is glitzy, glittery and unapologetic, respecting the tradition while bringing some new panache to the story.

While some directors try to upgrade remakes by fiddling with the time period or the setting, Marshall doesn't require any anachronisms to make "Chicago" appealing to contemporary audiences. If filmmakers in the 1920s had possessed the technology to create such a flashy, vivid movie, then "Chicago" would most likely have hit theaters 80 years earlier. The film also embraces the seductive, campy charm of the original 1970s Broadway production. This merging of influences from different time periods results in a surprisingly uniform film. As brassy and brazen as its protagonists, "Chicago" is a whirlwind of energy and catchy music that transcends its era.

Though she may look cherubic, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) has the heart of a ruthless killer. Her devoted, hangdog husband, Amos (John C. Reilly), can't offer Roxie the kind of lavish lifestyle she believes she deserves. Roxie fools around behind Amos' back, falling hard for the unscrupulous Fred (Dominic West). Fred strings Roxie along with empty promises of fame and fortune. When Roxie realizes that her lover is duping her, things get ugly. In the space of a gunshot, Roxie transforms from a two-timing housewife into a cold-hearted prisoner.

Although Roxie was hoping to become a star of stage and screen, she quickly realizes that being a renowned killer comes along with its own level of media attention. Amos quickly recruits the help of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a sweet-talking lawyer who knows how to turn even the least sympathetic prisoner into a lovable household name. While awaiting her trial, Roxie even gets to rub shoulders with the glitterati. Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the smoldering vaudeville star who murdered her husband and sister. As it turns out, Billy is already representing Velma, and Velma isn't ready to welcome Roxie as competition. The two women dance around each other like caged tigers, wavering between rivalry and compromise.

It turns out that Roxie isn't anything special, even in a correctional facility. Mama (Queen Latifah) is the prison matron, steely and warm at the same time. She oversees a whole flock of women who exacted revenge against their cheating husbands and no-good boyfriends. There are always new faces joining the crowd, some of them prettier or more dimpled than Roxie's. Life as a famous inmate turns out to be just as cutthroat as life for a starlet. The public's opinion means everything to these convicted women. While celebrities only have to worry about good reviews and sold-out shows, Roxie and her fellow convicts have their very lives on the line.

As might be expected from a story about murderous women and the desperate, clawing struggle for fame, "Chicago" is not exactly a feel-good tale. At times, the film seems to gloss over the darkness and bleakness of its plot. One of the most somber moments comes when a frail Hungarian prisoner (Ekaterina Chtchelkanova) ends up executed. What makes the scene particularly unsettling is the suggestion that this non-English speaker was innocent. Even this chilling scene mostly just serves as a way to propel the plot forward, focusing on Roxie's continued quest to manipulate everybody around her.

This lack of reflection isn't necessarily a drawback, though. In keeping with Roxie's obsession, the movie's main goal is all about the spectacle and the sparkle. As long as the viewers are entertained and tapping their feet, "Chicago" has succeeded. Thanks to the joint efforts of Marshall and his effervescent stars, the musical is a roaring success. The vibrant musical numbers and astonishing choreography easily take center stage, sweeping the viewers into the breathless, reckless world of beautiful killers and snapping flashbulbs.

"Chicago" highlights some unforgettable performances from its cast. Reilly's "Mr. Cellophane" is plaintive and subtle, while "Cell Block Tango" is a powerful celebration of revenge. The movie dances the line between dark and funny, using "the old razzle dazzle" to win the hearts of the audiences. Ultimately, it's a movie that would make even the ambitious Roxie Hart feel proud.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5