The current release of Chicago reaches the big screen by a circuitous route. Its origin was in a true story that was the basis for a 1926 play by Maureen Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The play was made into a silent film in 1927 and made into another film in 1942 called Roxie Hart, a vehicle for Ginger Rogers. When John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse turned it into a Broadway musical in 1975, they returned to the Watkins play (and the original title) as their source. It had a moderately successful two year run. The musical was revived in a stripped down production but with an extra-hard edge to its satire in 1996, a production that is still running in New York six years later.
The story centers on Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) who’s a not-too-bright, but cunning blonde with ambitions to be a song-and-dance star. A furniture salesman leads her on with promises of introductions in the right places, so she has an affair with him. When it turns out she has been had (pun intended), she shoots him. Her adoring husband (John C. Reilly) tries to take the fall for her, but she is arrested, charged with murder, and goes to jail awaiting trial.
In jail, she meets Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a star of Chicago nightclubs who herself is up on charges for murdering her husband in a jealous rage. They are both assisted (for a price) by the prison matron (Queen Latifah) and they both retain the same slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Flyn is expert at cultivating public opinion through manipulating the press, personified here by reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski at her considerable best and underutilized, as usual). With various disclosures and diversions, the film works its way to Roxie’s climactic trial.
This Chicago benefits from a handsome production that speeds through its 107 minute running time with style and bizazz, visually up to date with the rapid cuts, angled shots, and extreme closeups that mainstream films have long since picked up from their MTV origins. Director Rob Marshall has appropriately opted for a murky palette, reflecting both the smoky nightclubs and the prison locations in which most of the film takes place, as well as the darkness of the cynical satire that is at the center of the piece.For this Chicago is a world where everything is measured in terms of money, where everything and everyone can be bought, where sex is a commodity, and Justice’s scales are weighted with lucre.
The darkness of theme is counterbalanced by the winking attitude–nobody is shy here about their amorality, everybody revels in naughtiness. And then there is the score, a classic Broadway-Dixieland-Roaring Twenties sound, including hard-to-resist, toe-tapping numbers like "All That Jazz" and "When You’re Good to Mama." The choreography is by director Rob Marshall who understandably has assiduously avoided the style of Bob Fosse, whose choreography for the original played a large part in its success. Stage choreography rarely translates well to the screen, but Marshall’s solution is not choreography for people who like dancing; the cuts are so short and fast that the film never provides the satisfaction of a real dance number; it’s more like a series of strung-together poses.
Zellweger (Me, Myself, & Irene, Nurse Betty), Zeta-Jones (Traffic, High Fidelity), and Gere (Dr. T and the Women, Runaway Bride) all deliver more than might have been expected from essentially non-singing, non-dancing performers. Gere has a small, light baritone voice with which he gets by; he barely dances. Zellweger and Zeta-Jones manage a bit more, with Zellweger occasionally reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s lightness in her musical roles. All three exhibit considerable charm. When Queen Latifah sings, however, the movie comes alive in a way it doesn’t with the nonsingers, suggesting what might have been, had the casting been for appropriate talent rather than for box office drawing power.
And for all the darkness of the theme, the screen Chicago is missing the hard, perverse edginess that made the Broadway revival so effective and such fun. Here the edges have been rounded, the ironies softened and replaced with flashy camera work and cutting. Many, especially if they haven’t seen the stage production, will find it satisfying. Others will find that the film’s great style doesn’t compensate for the loss of a genuine air of decadence which would better have been carried by singing, dancing stars like Bebe Neuwirth and James Naughton.