In case you haven't heard, the movie musical is making a comeback. It began when Hollywood found itself all aflutter thanks to the over-hyped and overly caffeinated Moulin Rouge. Still, until a Hollywood project achieves the seamlessness and sass of last season's musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we won't exactly call it a comeback yet. In the meantime, we'll just call it Chicago.
The multiple Golden Globe nominee celebrates what first-time film director Rob Marshall calls "the perversity of celebrity." Chicago's main characters are two murderesses and their huckster lawyer, a trio of fame seekers hell-bent on living the highly examined life in the Windy City of 1929. Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a vaudeville star, until she's sent up the river for a double murder. Roxie Hart (Rene Zellweger) is willing to sleep her way to the stage -- and not afraid to shoot the guy who doesn't keep his promise to book her act. Both find themselves in the headlines and in desperate need of representation; lucky for them all attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) needs is love and, it turns out, a little publicity of his own. What follows is a biting send-up of a society that makes cult heroes of criminals and funny business of fiduciary duties. Seem familiar?
Cinematically speaking, Chicago is intricately choreographed and exceptionally well-edited. Marshall's visual ingenuity and verve are the perfect match for the show's tongue-in-cheekiness. Because Chicago's characters project to the audience vaudeville-style instead of serenading each other in the street or over dinner, Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have constructed the narrative in such a way that all of the song-and-dance routines occur in the feverish, Walter Mitty imagination of Roxie Hart. Such an arrangement opens the door for the lavish production numbers that are the film's signature moments; "We Both Reached for the Gun" turns a press conference into a puppet theater, with Roxie a ventriloquist dummy on Billy Flynn's knee and the gallery of reporters a band of marionettes. For "Cell Block Tango," the jail cells miraculously dissolve, making way for a powerful parade of the wild women on death row, not least among them Velma Kelley.
Many actresses have stepped into the spotlight as Velma, and none so surprisingly as Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Stop making mediocre movies on the Left Coast, Mrs. Michael Douglas, and get thee to a Broadway stage.) Zeta-Jones may be a bit older than the 19-year-old girl who got her start in West End musicals, but she could still own any Broadway stage she graced. Shortly after Chicago opens, we are treated to her electrifying, throaty rendition of "All That Jazz," brought to a boiling point by her slinky, sly comfort with the complicated choreography. This dancer was born, not made. The added challenge of song and dance brings out a previously undiscovered warmth in Zeta-Jones, banishing most of that flawless frostiness she's banked on in the past. Her Velma is so cool she's hot, a perfectly delightful oxymoron.
Zellweger and Gere keep up rather nicely, although both occasionally seem a bit hesitant about the sheer physicality of their roles. Zellweger continues to make smart and interesting choices, reminding audiences once again why she's probably the most promising young actress working today. Not since she virtually came out of nowhere for Jerry Maguire has Zellweger shone the way she does as Roxie Hart. Her Roxie is a dreamer with a heart of stone, a tricky combination of girlish self-delusion and hard-as-nails ambition. Zellweger's vocal abilities are remarkable for someone who swears she's only previously sung in the shower, and her dancing's not bad, either. She vamps it up appropriately for "Roxie," although there are moments when she seems distractingly uncertain about what to do with her arms. Still, her acting, as always, is impeccable; Roxie's never been so winsome -- or so warped.
For his part, Gere razzle dazzles his way back to that roguish sense of humor he seemed to lose pretty quickly after Pretty Woman. The role of Billy Flynn took nothing but courage for an actor who seems to take himself so seriously. True, his voice does sound a little produced at times and some of his moves are as wooden as most of his acting has been of late, but he redeems himself with a fetching twinkle in his eye and one gorgeously executed tap dance.
As for the supporting players, Queen Latifah is getting more than her fair share of praise for her funny, sexy prison matron Mama Morton. The unsung hero of the film, though, is John C. Reilly, who plays Amos, Roxie's dim-yet-loyal husband; Reilly's sweet, melancholy "Mr. Cellophane" puts him right up there with predecessors Barney Martin and Joel Grey.
If the true movie musical is indeed nearing resurrection, Chicago is a hop, skip and a few dance steps in the right direction. It's a little sad to see Broadway icons Chita Rivera (the original Velma Kelley) and Christine Baranski relegated to secondary roles; Rivera is given only one line, and Baranski merely passes time as news reporter Mary Sunshine. Still, a show this good had to go on -- and had to go Hollywood.
- Catherine Zeta-Jones is killer as the latest in a long line of actresses to play Chicago's notorious Velma Kelley.