Chicago reduces our critic to a finger-snappin', toe-tappin' fool.

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Dec. 27 2002 6:02 PM

Cell Block Tango

Chicago reduces our critic to a finger-snappin', toe-tappin' fool.

Zellweger's charming vamp
Zellweger's charming vamp

Rob Marshall's film of Chicago (Miramax) isn't just the most explosively entertaining movie musical in a couple of decades. It's going to be the most influential: the one that inspires the rebirth of the Hollywood musical, that leaves audiences everywhere wanting more dancing, more singing—more, more, more!!!

It's a more-ish kind of picture. Every number is a showstopper. Every performer is working at the top of his or her game. The story of Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), the hopeful chorine whose 1929 killing of her duplicitous lover proves to be her ticket to tabloid stardom, simply bowls you over. At the huge press screening that I (and the rest of the New York media) flocked to in early December, we were transformed into a bunch of musical-comedy queens on the verge of tearing the place apart. If the cast had shown up, we'd have stormed the stage: "Renée, have my baby!!!" "Catherine, Michael doesn't love you like I love you!!!" "John C. Reilly! … Gee, you're in a lot of movies these days …"

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Who would have thought that a movie-star sex goddess like Catherine Zeta-Jones would also be a belter, that she'd have the hunger of such rapacious musical-comedy creatures as Chita Rivera—who played her part in the original Bob Fosse production (which I saw twice in the mid-'70s)? As Velma Kelly, who finds her sister and her husband together in bed, shoots them both, then confidently strides onstage to do the scintillating vamp anthem, "All That Jazz" ("I'm gonna rouge my knees/ and roll my stockings down …"), Zeta-Jones has a smoldering confidence that takes your mind off her not-always-fluid dancing—although she's a perfectly fine hoofer, with majestic limbs and a commanding cleavage. 

It doesn't really matter that she's no Chita (or Gwen Verdon or Ann Reinking) because these dances are cut into lots of small pieces instead of long takes—and if these actors wouldn't survive a Broadway marathon (or a one-fluid-shot Fred-and-Ginger dance), they're positively electric in the sprints. Besides, it's fun to see movie stars pull off big musical-comedy numbers—to see that Zellweger's smeary-eyed sweetness comes through when she sings and that she can play a selfish little tramp like Roxie Hart (who tries to pin her murder on her sap husband, played by John C. Reilly) without making you adore her one drop less than when she was the snortingly tremulous Bridget Jones.

Queen Latifah reigns in prison and song
Queen Latifah reigns in prison and song

You couldn't guess that Richard Gere—as Roxie's sharpy lawyer, Billy Flynn—would be so ingratiating a song-and-dance man, or that when he sang out, he'd have that silly, back-of-the-palate tremolo like Anthony Newley (with a touch of Jerry Lewis). It helps that the supporting players (Queen Latifah as the big-mama matron of female prison, Christine Baranski as a snooty trial/gossip columnist) have proven musical chops and that the company of singers and dancers are simply the snazziest in the biz. When a succession of convicted murderesses (among them Roxanne Barlow, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova, and Jayne Eastwood) hurl themselves into "He Had It Coming!" in the Cook County Prison, every verse stops the show.

As designed by John Myrhe and photographed by Dion Beebe, Chicago is occasionally an eyesore. Gere's "Razzle-Dazzle," done as a three-ring circus under red and green lights, looks especially ugly and cluttered. And the numbers are mostly in the Benihana school—chop chop chop chop and a lot of fluttering limbs. I usually hate that style—it's what drove me nuts about the dancing in last year's monument to attention-deficit disorder, Moulin Rouge! But director Rob Marshall is also a choreographer, and if he edits too much, he has learned from Fosse to edit in synch with the dancing—to make the cut an extension of the dance gesture. (Think of the way that Fosse edited "Mein Herr" or the title song in Cabaret [1972]—that's the model.)

It helps that Chicago isn't a "realistic" musical, in the movie-musical-killing tradition of Oklahoma! (OK, that's a provocative statement and needs some elaboration. I like Oklahoma! fine, but this so-called '40s "coming of age" of the Broadway musical was an aberrant outgrowth of stage naturalism, which attempted to foster an illusion of seamlessness and which has mostly shackled performers to cornball realistic plots. Think of Shirley Jones in all those deadly Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations or Julie Andrews in anything—it's no mystery why the musical died.)

Anyway, Chicago is a quasi-Brechtian vaudeville—the sort of movie in which the numbers are presented as numbers. Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have given the film at least two levels: the racy '20s tabloid melodrama of jazz murderesses; and the world of the vaudeville stage, in which an emcee/bandleader (Taye Diggs) introduces each number as an opportunity for the character to express his or her innermost self. The musical, with its marvelous score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was engineered to Fosse's talents. Every number is in a different vaudeville style, from the Jolson-esque "Mr. Cellophane" (in which John C. Reilly proves to be a lyrically dopey crooner) to Flynn's soft-shoe declaration of showbiz cynicism, "Razzle-Dazzle."

Chicago wears its showbiz cynicism with gaudy pride. The central conflict is between Roxie and the simmering prima donna Velma to see who will emerge the bigger murderess/star. Which means that Chicago is one of the rare musical comedies (Gypsy is another) to tell the truth about the people who compete for your entertainment dollars. It says that musical-comedy bitches and bastards will do anything for a showstopper—even kill you. Chicago kills.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.