I waited a while to see this one. Among the incessant TV teasers, multiple Oscar nods, and the fervor, I needed to delay viewing until the hype died down. Is it as good as everyone makes it out to be? Yes. Chicago is quite worthy of the many accolades lavished upon it. Markedly better than the bland Evita, and equally dazzling but less ostentatious as Moulin Rouge, Chicago distinguishes itself because its underlying point isn't biographical or love story. It's about media sensationalized criminal trials and how the public just can't get enough of them. The movie's tag line, "If you can't be famous, be infamous", sums up the driving force behind the two main characters; Valma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two jailed murderesses determined to get off by using a slick lawyer, the abuse excuse, and the press.
The movie opens in a jazz club where a starry-eyed Roxie (Renee Zellweger) watches headliner Valma (Catherine Zeta Jones) fabulously perform the musical number "All That Jazz" and wishes herself in the spotlight. Roxie soon gets her chance, when her arrest for murdering her boyfriend hits the tabloids. Now in the Cook County Jail, she is face-to-face with Valma, who is also on 'murderess row' for shooting her husband and sister, who were practicing performance acrobatics, in bed. The two are now rivals for publicity, and Roxie quickly eclipses Valma as the media darling, and she also hires Kelly's sly criminal lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), which only adds to the competition. Flynn skillfully manipulates the media and is the quintessential spin-doctor. This is deftly depicted in the number "They Both Reached for the Gun", where Gere becomes the literal mouthpiece for Zellweger's character and a puppeteer of the media. It is a fantastic performance by Gere, Zellweger, and Christine Baranski, and brings to mind the spectacles of O.J. Simpson Dream Team. - - If the glove doesn't fit…
As impressive as it is however, it is only one of the many splendid musical scores in the film, among my favorite is the "Cell Block Tango" performed by Jones, R&B singer Mya, and other actresses from the stage production of the musical. It has the look of an 80's rock video, with scantily clad vixens writhing behind bars, however these sirens tell of how they lured their men to their demise in this number. Another standout is Queen Latifah's piece "When You're Good to Mama" -- although a rapper by trade, Latifah belts it as adeptly as she would had it been a hip-hop set. Cast as prison Matron "Mama" Morton, Queen Latifah, neé Dana Owens, establishes early on that she is more than capable of handling a serious role, and the earlier success in Bringing Down the House was no fluke. Her screen presence was that of a confident and competent actress, and not the latest music world crossover.
While I am not a big fan of Zellweger, I have to give her credit for her performance as the young, naïve, star-struck Roxie. She was a good pick for the part despite her not being as an experienced singer and dancer, but that actually works to her advantage. Roxie, the character, has no stage experience either, so a veteran stage performer wouldn't have come off as well as an ingénue would. Zellweger's singing voice is remarkably sweet and those puffy cheeks of hers only add to her tenability as the illusory amateur.
The true star of the show is undoubtedly Catherine Zeta Jones. If you think that she's just Mrs. Douglas, think again. Her performance in Chicago shows that she is a true actor in her own right. Jones was natural as Kelly, partly because of her own recent media relations, but mainly because of her theater background and genuine talent. She is stunning as the story's bold protagonist and gives it her all in her number "I Can't Do It Alone"; she was born for this role. Why she's doing ads for T-Mobile, I don't know.
Richard Gere was fine at his part of the crafty advocate, although his singing voice left much to be desired. I was not too impressed with his tap-dance routine, but the symbolism was effectively communicated by being interspliced with a courtroom scene. In fact, all of the musical numbers in Chicago serve the storyline well. It is not simply a collection of songs chained together with spoken lines, nor do the characters spontaneously break into song in the middle a line. Each stage number is introduced by the production's band leader (Taye Diggs: How Stella Got Her Grove Back, Ally McBeal).
Let me also mention that Lucy Liu has a bit part, mostly in her skivvies, and there are a couple other well-known faces who dot the cast, but Jones, Zellweger, Gere, and Latifah, all prove that they are worthy of their Oscar nominations. But what Chicago does best is exhibit how trials of the famous or infamous are more about entertainment and ratings and less about justice. The struggle between Valma and Roxy for flavor of the month is demonstrative of how far some celebrity defendants, and their lawyers are willing to go. The film also makes the point of how there seems to be a "Crime of the Century" every few years, and how quickly defendants are forgotten when the next trial comes around. You won't be able to view it without the OJ, DC Sniper, William Kennedy Smith or Scott Peterson cases coming to mind.
Whether you see Chicago for the outstanding performances or the dateless social commentary, you should see it. Those who didn't appreciate Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge may find Chicago a bit more palatable. It is intelligent, sexy, fun, exciting, and amazing and that's Chicago.
Notes: See the stage production if you get a chance.
Czarina's Caustic Comment or Captious Compliment: Chicago is worthy of all that jazz.
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