143 – Chicago

By this time, you’ve undoubtedly heard of this Broadway play-cum-Hollywood musical; otherwise, that rock you’ve been under must be nice and cozy. Chicago won six Oscars (including Best Picture) at this year’s ceremony, and it was nominated for seven more. It’s rare that a movie could be so widely praised and still not be be very good, and happily for the home viewer, that doesn’t happen here, either.

Chicago is the story of Roxie Hart (Rene Zellweger), a married woman on trial for killing her boyfriend. Her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) stands by her, but Roxie aspires to be more than a housewife – she wants to be a big Star like her idol, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who’s also currently in stir for murder. Roxie is defended by the magnificently egotistical megalomaniac Billy Flynn, who had been Velma’s lawyer, too.

It’s not always easy to transform a musical to the big screen. Movie audiences tend to tune out big production numbers, because our attention spans just aren’t what they used to be. Also, it’s harder to capture the pomp and circumstance of a big musical production in a movie than it is on a stage. On stage, your audience is rapt, captive to the sounds and smells of the entertainment afore them. On the screen, it’s all visual. In addition, the grand old era of big musicals is long gone – MGM Studios had an entire division devoted to it back in the forties and fifties. But times have changed, and the audience with them.

Director Rob Marshall, whose first big film this was, brought a career in choreography to the project, and he succeeded tremendously. The dramatic apexes of the movie are told in song and dance, and never for a moment does the viewer imagine he is anywhere but in the jail, the courtroom, Roxie’s apartment, or wherever the scene is set. That’s a testament to the wonderful camerawork, the lively and photogenic choreography, and the bravura performances turned in by the cast. Each scene is more mesmerizing than the last, and the set pieces alone are really jaw-dropping.

But aside from all that supplemental stuff, there’s the cast itself. Each cast member performed his or her own singing and dancing. Zeta-Jones is a trained singer and dancer; the rest of the cast needed lessons, but it doesn’t show. In particular, I was duly impressed with Zellweger’s vocal range and showmanship; even Richard Gere –
long on my list of Poor Actors – shone. And none in this triumphant trimverate turned in the plum performance of the show – that would be Queen Latifah, who was herself nominated for an Oscar as Mama Morton. Of course, Latifah is an accomplished singer and has been for some time, but her work her was absolutely powerful.

Recommending musicals can be treacherous work. Guys will turn up their noses or grunt (or both) and dismiss any musical as a chick flick. Don’t do it, guys, don’t do it. You get to see three sexy women (four, if you count the exotic Lucy Liu, one of my personal all-time favorites) oozing scandal, intrigue, and sensuality; it’s not as if they’re sitting around discussing the latest woman-in-peril movie on Lifetime. There’s violence AND sex. Okay, the sex is way, way, way offscreen. But it’s still naughty, trust me.

Chicago: ***1/2

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