By Shawn McKenzie 12/18/2002
People…there is a reason Moulin Rouge was such a hit. It was visually stunning, used the creative idea of using modern pop tunes in a turn-of-the-century setting, and the acting wasn’t too bad either. I really don’t think it was necessarily the triumphant return of the movie musical. Even a Western has the occasional hit, but we have long left the Golden Age of the Western as well. I do think that Moulin Rouge paved the way for a movie version of the 1975 Bob Fosse Broadway musical Chicago, something Fosse had been trying for decades to do himself. While I liked Moulin Rouge, I wasn’t too crazy about Chicago.
Showgirl Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) dreams of a life on the Vaudeville stage, and spends her nights in the nightclubs of Chicago, always hoping that she'll find her lucky break. She is married to a devoted but boring man named Amos (John C. Reilly) and would really like to break free from him so she can be more like her idol, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones.) Roxie has been having an affair with Fred Casely (Dominic West), a man who convinces her he can “make her showbiz career take off.” One night, after leaving a nightclub, she has one last roll in the hay with Fred. After they are done, Fred lets Roxie know that he really doesn’t have any showbiz connections and that he doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore. Out of sheer frustration and anger, Roxie grabs a gun out of a drawer and shoots Fred dead. When Amos comes home, he first takes the blame for the murder (thinking Fred was an intruder), but quickly changes his mind when he finds out he was her lover. She is thrown in jail, on death row, where she is awaiting her trial in which she might get a hanging. In jail, she finally meets her idol Velma Kelly, currently getting huge media attention for the double murder of her husband and co-star/sister, who were having an affair. Along with Velma is an assortment of other devious females, all awaiting trial for the murders of their own partners. One day after overhearing a conversation between Velma and the prison Warden, Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah), Roxie goes to Mrs. Morton and asks for help. She hooks Roxie up with Chicago lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a lawyer who specializes in manipulating the tabloids to gain fame for his clients and himself in addition to getting them off. He makes the press think that Roxie was an innocent victim of the sins of Chicago and that the murder was self-defense. The tabloids eat it up, and Roxie finally becomes a star, much to the furor of Velma, who is now yesterday’s news. Roxie's newfound fame is threatened briefly herself when Go-to-hell Kitty (Lucy Liu) arrives at the jail on a multiple murder charge, and Kitty’s bad attitude towards the press makes them want her even more. Roxie manages to bring the media attention back onto her with one last trick, and her day in court arrives. Her day of court is the day Billy really gets to show off his spinning skills.
I went into this movie with two biases. First, despite the fact that I liked Moulin Rouge or any animated feature, I’m not a big fan of musicals. I either think the singing is distracting or repetitive while I’m trying to enjoy the plot (which is secondary in many musicals.) As I said, I don’t mind if a cartoon has singing (even an R-rated one like South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut), but that might be just that I grew up on Disney cartoon musicals and think of singing as just a staple feature for animated movies. Second, I can’t stand Richard Gere. I think he is a horrible actor, and any good movie he is in is good despite him. While watching Chicago, I was trying to figure out what actor would have done a better job than Gere. I kept thinking George Clooney, but he has already proven that he can’t sing, since he needed to be dubbed over in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I’d like to say I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn’t. The singing and dancing was a little boring after awhile. To its credit, the singing and choreography were impressive (especially the performances of Zeta-Jones and Zellweger), far more impressive than that of another Fosse movie adaptation, Cabaret (another musical I hated.) There is a cool scene where Billy is playing the press (who are all strung up like marionettes) and he is using Roxie like a ventriloquist dummy. After the seventh or eighth grand-scale song and dance routine though, I just wanted the movie to end.
I suppose if you are a musical fan, you might like Chicago, but it really didn’t do much for me. I never saw the stage version, so I can’t tell you how well it was translated to the screen. I suppose the survival of the supposed “return of the musical” depends on the success of this movie, so if you like musicals, go see it. I’ll be at the latest computer-animated musical Pixar flick!
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