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Sparkle and Fade

 

Chicago

Rob Marshall, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: January 14, 2003

By Laurence Station

Chicago, the feature film debut of veteran theater director Rob Marshall, snaps and sparkles, offering crackerjack editing by Martin Walsh (Bridget Jones's Diary), a decent script from Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and a time-tested story and score courtesy of Cabaret collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb. But somewhere in all that flash, deeper issues regarding the obsessive desire for fame, and the motives that drive individuals to commit crimes of passion, are ignored in favor of zip and moxie, which the film -- much like the 1975 Bob Fosse Broadway musical upon which it's based -- offers in spades.

Chicago tells the tale of two 1920s-era Windy City chorus girls, doe-eyed blonde Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and raven-haired vamp Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Both are accused of murder, and both are aggressively competing for the services of flashy lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) and the flashbulbs and newsprint of the ever-clamoring press corps. Velma is hard-edged and wily; she’s had a small taste of stardom and doesn't intend to lose her chance to cash in before people have forgotten her name. Roxie is an eager up and comer, seemingly innocent and naive, yet possessed of a ruthless understanding of how best to give the newspapers headlines guaranteed to sell pulp.

The notion that Velma and Roxie could end up hanging for their respective crimes lurks in the background -- save for one quite effective execution scene -- but their true struggle is for fame, the desperate desire to hog the spotlight at any cost. Marshall is at his best playing Roxie and Velma against each other, with Flynn shifting his loyalties as easily as one might change his socks. The contrast between bright and sunny Roxie and dark and smoldering Velma is smartly handled, each ultimately coming across as part of the same two-sided coin that people like Flynn flip and call on a regular basis. That the women are both using, and being used by, a public hungry for the next salacious headline clearly speaks across the decades to the human desire to observe the shocking and perverse from a safe distance, and Chicago mines this theme with eager, unsubtle abandon.

Marshall's inventive, electrically charged choreography, coupled with clever editing, gives the film's song-and-dance numbers the requisite amount of oomph. That the sequences have been altered from the original, and are now presented as mere fantasies springing from Roxie's stardust-speckled imagination, meshes well with the movie's exploration of escape and finding something more fulfilling than the ho-hum drudgery the real world has to offer. Zeta-Jones' slinky "All That Jazz;" "When You're Good to Mama," showcasing prison matron Mama Morton (an outstanding Queen Latifah); and "Mr. Cellophane," wonderfully performed by John C. Reilly as Roxie's long-suffering lunk of a husband Amos; these numbers in particular sparkle with the kind of fairy dust with which Marshall strives, but fails, to imbue the entire enterprise.

The actors can't be faulted for lack of effort, however. Gere brings undeniable charisma to the role of Flynn, while proving a better dancer than singer in his numbers. Likewise, Zellweger hits her marks impressively, but tries a little too hard to make Roxie likeable. There’s a sense that the characters were given more polish than the story demanded -- as if they weren’t trying to win over just the fictional public, but we the movie audience as well. A decided lack of edge, of mean-spiritedness, dulls what should have been a much sharper critique on our Coliseum-like bloodlust for sordid crimes and sensational trials.

Nonetheless, Chicago convincingly makes (okay, overstates) its point that fame is fleeting; the public will move on to the next spectacle as easily as discarding yesterday's newspaper for the fresh morning edition. That the same argument could be applied to this version of the musical is undeniable. Once the razzle-dazzle, show-stopping numbers end, there's not much to hold onto. Which might be a case of the film adhering a little too closely to its own message.

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 1.1-1.9: Poor
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