At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Chicago “02”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Musical Black Comedy-Crime/ Stars: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Colm Feore, Dominic West/ Runtime: 113 minutes

If there is one thing I have learned in my time as a film reviewer, it is that more often than not a fictional character is able to get away with a significantly high amount more than the average human being would be able to do in the real world. Indeed they conduct acts that are absolutely reprehensible by reality’s laws and standards, but at the same time these individuals are still able to acquire a great deal of our pity if not our sympathies. To be fair, it might just be a manner of showing a degree of emotional catharsis so that rather than causing violence on the world around us and on the people we love, we instead sit down and view a fictional character do these things and applaud them for it. This is most certainly true with the film adaptation of the musical Chicago. Indeed here is a movie which showcases a cast that is 98% criminals and/or cons yet the most astonishing thing is that the majority of them are quite amicable. Indeed this still doesn’t take away the fact that our desire to cheer on these bad people is still a wee bit unnerving. This is because Chicago is a narrative that talks about individuals getting away with various crimes by acquiring the public’s empathy through toying with their buried, but still present desire to learn about the odd and the horrifically bloody. In other words: this musical might just be telling us more about our society than we would like to admit, but when it’s this entertaining and it’s done this well and it’s this well-performed then, according to this musical, frankly who cares?

The plot is as follows: when looked at from a certain perspective, the story that this film showcases is one that has the feel of a drama set in the world of show business. This is because the film follows a young woman who dreams of being a star and, although she starts out very naive, she manages to learn her way around and rises into the limelight while all the while an older and more knowledgeable rival starts to despise her for stealing their thunder. The wrinkle however in this tale is that the art that these women are performers in happens to be homicide, and the stage on which they perform is made up of the newspaper, the radio, in court, and also in the eyes of the hungry for this kind of thing public. The veteran is a woman by the name of Velma Kelly who happened to be a celebrated figure in the nightclub circuit who did away with both her husband and her sister/stage partner after finding them…..trying out some specific song and dance numbers to put it delicately. The newbie on the cell block is a Miss Roxie Hart, a lovely young woman who shot point blank the guy she was sleeping with on the side after discovering he was only interested in her for sex and who expects her doormat of a spouse to be by her side in the aftermath. It is also worth mentioning that both of these competing divas also share the same legal representation in the form of a silver-tongued shuckster by the name of Billy Flynn. A man who, in addition, to making the boisterous claim that he can help anyone beat any charge for a price courtesy of his method of turning the client into a media sensation and then spinning a few tales in the client’s favor thus all but guaranteeing them an acquittal, is also the very individual who that renowned playwright Shakespeare was thinking of when he made a particular joke about lawyers. Thus what we are left with then is a narrative about people so bad they are good, the choices they make, and what eventually becomes of them and the people connected to them all set to the back drop of the roaring 20’s with the city of Chicago as their jazz-infused playground….

Now even though the film Chicago fits into the genre that is the musical genre, it manages to distinguish itself by the utilization of a pair of distinct worlds that the film is set in: there is the reality-based world of Chicago in the 1920’s and a trippy fantasy world that has the look and feel of a theater during the Jazz Age and which all of the film’s song and dance numbers occur. Now in the vast majority of musicals this plain and simply could not be pulled off well at all yet in this one it actually makes quite a bit of sense for this film to do things that way. It also certainly doesn’t hurt that the film’s director does a wonderful job of merging these two distinct yet connected worlds together very effectively as he manages to conjure up some imagery that, between worlds, works quite effectively. Indeed there are quite a few things that would look like the type of things that a person might see in a cartoon straight out of the editorial section of a newspaper (yes those still exist believe it or not). Indeed, as we see in the film, a press conference in one reality quickly becomes a clever ventriloquism bit in the other while a trial in reality becomes, in the fantasy world, an all-out circus.

Yet in the process of choreographing this film’s astounding musical numbers, it should also be said that director Rob Marshall has also done something else that is equally as phenomenal. That is the fact that, instead of just bringing back the wonderful choreography done by Bob Fosse for the original 1975 theatrical show of this musical, Marshall instead chooses to use it merely as both an inspiration and a foundation for which he can build off of and use to conjure up new choreography work that can work off this film’s editing style as much as possible. Indeed not only is “The Press Conference Rag” a fantastic example of this new choreography style in action, but I would also point out the numbers “All That Jazz” ( a steamy vaudeville dance performance that manages to tie in at the same a pair of crucial threads to the overall narrative), “I Can’t Do It Alone” (a song and dance number balanced out with Velma showing Roxie her original show to try and get to work with her) and “Razzle Dazzle” (a fantastic number balanced out by Billy Flynn’s shenanigans in the courtroom during Roxie’s trial) as well for a more complete and comprehensive look. Yet, despite the very surreal quality of the movie and these musical numbers, the director does permit a degree of sanity to sneak its way into everything going on in the form of a sequence where a seemingly innocent woman is actually put to death. Indeed with this sequence, it’s almost like for a brief moment someone picked up the remote and hit the pause button so as to keep us from becoming completely immersed by the glamour or Roxie’s point of view and thus see our own rational point of view on both justice and what truly is right and wrong tragically lost in the scuffle. Indeed it may be a moment that is quite jarring, but it is also a moment that the musical needed as well.

Now the cast that has been assembled to bring this lively and vibrant tale to life all manage to do truly phenomenal work, both in the singing and acting departments. This starts with Catherine Zeta-Jones who is both fiery and sensual in the role of Velma Kelly especially when it comes to the opening number in the film of All That Jazz. We also get terrific work from Renee Zellweger who not only is wonderful in her musical numbers, but also brings a delightful innocence to Roxie that, as the story goes on, transforms into a wonderful sense of cynicism as she sees more and more about how the world around her really is. Rounding out the main trio of performances in this is Richard Gere as defense lawyer extraordinaire Billy Flynn and not only is he brilliant in Flynn’s musical numbers, but in terms of just character development, I feel that Gere was perfectly cast as the silver-tongued shuckster who truly is, despite what he may say to the contrary, a charismatic scoundrel whose primary talent and subsequent danger to any prosecutor going up against him is his distinct gift for being so darn charming and Gere nails this role through and through. Yet even in the co-starring roles we get surprisingly great performances, both acting and vocal-wise from Queen Latifah as the motherly matron warden of the women’s prison where both Velma and Roxie are being held, John C. Reilly as Roxie’s hen pecked husband Amos, and Taye Diggs as the bandleader in the fantasy world even though he doesn’t get the opportunity to show off his vocal abilities, a shame really since he was part of the stage musical Rent, yet nevertheless is still able to work quite well with the material that the film provides him with.

All in all and truth be told Chicago, even though it does give audiences a wonderful chance to hear some terrific musical numbers and enjoy a cast of well-drawn and quite acerbically humorous characters, is most certainly more than just a treat for the eyes. Indeed this a musical which possesses a look at how some of the “best” read: cynical criminal defense lawyers are able to manipulate the criminal justice system in the United States by using our own celebrity-obsessed society against us is most certainly just as relevant as it was when the musical was first written and performed. Yet I can promise you that if there is any lecturing that is done in this story then it is most assuredly done herein with both a wink and nudge….and maybe the briefest flash of a flirtatious smile as well. Thus I think it really is safe to say that Chicago, with the help of an amazing director and a wonderful cast and crew, really truly at the end of the day really is…all that jazz. On a scale of 1-5 I give Chicago “02” a solid 4 out of 5.