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Chicago   D

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: Bill Condon
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Colm Feore.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'd give real money to see the perpetrators of Chicago torn apart by dingoes. It's exactly the sort of overwrought, irritating, empty exercise in self-importance that brought the musical to the brink of extinction. We probably have Moulin Rouge to thank for revitalizing this sort of spectacle, though I don't blame it for what's produced here. I have my issues with Moulin Rouge, but at least it achieved genuine artistry with its excess. All Chicago achieves is a desire to kill.

Like Moulin Rouge, this film relies on the barest threads of narrative. The real purpose is the musical numbers, with the plot existing only to tie them into some kind of coherent whole. Critics constantly complain about action films based on the same principle, and yet because Chicago has singing and dancing, it somehow gets a free ride. Set in the heyday of the Jazz Age, it purports to tell a story of fame and betrayal, of lust for the spotlight and a willingness to kill in order to get there. It's a decent premise, but the choice of leading lady almost torpedoes it from the beginning. Renée Zellweger, normally a fine actress, is hopelessly miscast as aspiring showgirl Roxie Hart, who murders her lover and then convinces her schlub of a husband (John C. Reilly) to foot her legal bill. The musical numbers take place mostly in her mind, punctuating her growing rivalry with fellow murderess Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and blossoming schemes with hotshot defense lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Zellweger is completely swamped, her elfin frame swallowed by the obtuse production that director Rob Marshall surrounds her with. Gere, too, looks a trifle lost, though his resemblance to Gene Kelly can be striking at times. Only Zeta-Jones has the presence and charisma to feel at home in this white elephant, and her character is so relentlessly off-putting that we can't enjoy her brassy persona.

That leaves the music and the flashy dance routines to carry the show. Here, Chicago's Rouge envy really takes shape, with each new sequence trying desperately to blow our socks off. The effort proves more exhausting than exhilarating; without a proper sense of pacing, the thunder and noise have nowhere towards which to build. The songs are memorable in the same way as the Armour Hot Dogs jingle, repeating their basic mantra ad nauseum until we can't get them out of our skulls. The choreography, based on Bob Fosse's original stage production, has some sparkle, but remains all but hidden beneath the bombastic art direction and MTV edits. A few numbers (like Zeta-Jones's opener) display promise, but most range from the ho-hum (Reilly's maudlin solo) to the genuinely creepy (Zellweger as a ventriloquist dummy on Gere's lap).

All of this would be enough to make Chicago a disappointment, but its core emotional thrust turns it into something truly infuriating. This is an unconscionably smug movie. Smug characters. Smug tone. Smug subject matter, and smug condescension towards its audience. It's infatuated with its own cleverness, staring adoringly at the rampant cynicism that propels it. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with cynicism, but Chicago treats it like a pedestal, lifting the film above the naïve dupes in the audience that it presumes to lecture. As Roxie's trial proceeds and her fame grows, it eagerly unveils a cornucopia of bad behavior. It revels in its amoral heroines, its remorseless hero, its circus-like portrayal of justice and the media. And yet at the same time, it has the audacity to chide us for craving such material -- to deliver a lesson against the very shortcomings it exemplifies so hungrily. The hypocrisy inherent in its sermonizing reflects a shocking egotism, of which Chicago seems snidely unaware. With the technical elements as overblown as they are, its philosophy becomes absolutely unpalatable. Don't shine a spotlight on the bloodstains and then condemn us for looking. Don't you dare.

Despite all these failings Chicago has garnered substantial critical praise and seems poised -- Gott in Himmel! -- for a run at the Oscars. The Miramax marketing machine has a proud history of selling snake oil to the gullible, and their craven efforts fit right in with the subject matter on display here. As empty as a Vegas billboard, Chicago's lone saving grace is that it might herald a real return of the musical as a genre -- a genre that deserves better than this cheap, hustling mistake. Hold your breath and pass it by; something better is bound to come along.

Review published 01.06.2003.

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