Here’s a story about two murderesses who backstab lie and cheat–plus sing and dance–in order to make themselves stand out in roaring 1920s Chicago a town full of legends. Honestly what more could you ask for in entertainment? Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a sensational nightclub duo with her sister blanks out and shoots her philandering husband after she catches him cheating on her–with said sister. She lives the high life in jail enjoying the perks as long as she pays for them given to her by the warden Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah). Velma also hires Chicago’s slickest lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to keep her notorious murder case on the front page. Enter little Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) a wannabe singer/dancer who’s entranced by Chicago’s promise of fame and fortune and winds up on the row for offing her abusive lover because he lied to her about breaking her into show biz. Billy immediately recognizes enormous potential in Roxie’s crime of passion and while postponing Velma’s case turns Roxie into America’s latest sweetheart. The press loves her and Roxie milks it for all it’s worth convinced she’ll be famous when it’s all over. The jilted Velma however has other plans for little Miss Perfect and sets out to sabotage Roxie’s case. The two women stop at nothing to top one another and claim their rightful place in the spotlight. Still maybe there is room for two on that stage after all.
Once again we see how Hollywood movie stars can sometimes do more than emote on screen. Michelle Pfeiffer wowed audiences when she sang her own songs in The Fabulous Baker Boys; Nicole Kidman knocked ’em dead in Moulin Rouge. Now we have Zellweger Gere and Zeta-Jones singin’ and struttin’ their stuff in Chicago. The three do an admirable job handling the musical chores though Zellweger emerges as the best of the trio. Her dancing skills may need a little work but they’re thankfully kept to a minimum and she certainly possesses the right amount of charisma to pull the whole musical thing off. Gere continually surprises you once you get over the fear that he’s going to fall flat on his face. He even manages to pull off a tap-dancing number. Zeta-Jones who lobbied hard for the part of Velma makes her talent as a dancer evident but it’s possible that Bebe Neuwirth (TV’s Frasier) who originated the part in the recent Broadway revival may have fit the bill a little better. (The casting is reminiscent of the decision to give the big-screen lead in My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn instead of the Broadway show’s star Julie Andrews.) And John C. Reilly miraculously shows some talent as a singer playing Roxie’s husband Amos who supports his wife even after she cheated on him. Reilly adds this character to his list of schlub husbands this year (The Good Girl; The Hours).
Like last year’s Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge Chicago‘s sleek production values may trumpet the triumphant return of the big-screen musical. Director Rob Marshall whose only other directorial credit is turning the musical Annie into a well-made television mini-series knows how to frame the musical numbers within the context of the story. As Roxie fantasizes about just how famous she is going to get the action segues into a dazzling solo in front of mirrors. Another standout is Queen Latifah‘s introductory song as Mama Morton where the scene switches between her drab warden walking through the jail and her buxom lounge siren working the audience. The film really comes alive though during the “murderess row” number where a series of jailed women explain exactly what they did to get where they are. But in this fantastic spectacle lies the main problem with the film. The scene sparkles because it incorporates real dancers women who obviously know how to dance the way Chicago‘s original creator/choreographer Bob Fosse intended them to dance. At this point in the film you almost wish you were watching Chicago live on stage where dancers do amazing choreography without the comfort of knowing their performance will be edited. Singing is the easy part; if musicals are truly going to make a comeback on screen Hollywood will have to go back to what it did in the ’30s and ’40s–groom professional dancers into movie stars. Fred Astaire where are you when we need you?