Zeta-Jones wins an unfair fight in jazz musical revisited
By Charlotte O'Sullivan
09 December 2002
In all the fuss surrounding this Miramax adaptation of the 1975 Bob Fosse hit, very little surrounds the director. When it comes to the svengali stakes, Rob Marshall Sam Mendes' co-director on Cabaret and, lest we forget, the choreographer of TVs Mrs Santa Claus isn't quite up there with Baz Luhrmann, Lars von Trier or Woody Allen.
You don't have to be a fan of "all that jazz" (spotlights; flailing limbs; out-of-the-blue songs) to sit through weird originals such as Moulin Rouge, Dancer in the Dark or Everyone Says I Love You. Marshall's lowly status, by contrast, sends out the message OK, game's up, this is, basically, a musical. We've got stars, we've got numbers, and if that ain't enough, well, goshdarnit, you'd better stay home.
And so to the stars. Chicago is the kind of show actors try and "steal" from each other which, given that the plot is entirely concerned with ill-gotten gains, seems fair enough. We're in 1920s Chicago, and Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Roxie (Renee Zellweger) are two banged-up femme fatales vying for the attentions of their super-slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), tabloid headlines and ultimately the centre stage. The lawyer himself is addicted to the limelight. It's a gladiatorial universe, a rat-eat-rat world, and we're supposed to feel uneasy even as we urge our favourites on.
We do feel uneasy but mainly because where the Welsh Cinderella and Texan cupcake are concerned this doesn't seem a fair fight. Zeta-Jones has no trouble convincing us she's hard as lacquered nails. No matter she's got an average voice, she's in her element. Looking as peppy as Anna Karina in Godard's Vivre Sa Vie, she belts out the songs and rams that healthy flesh down the camera lens. Meanwhile, Zellweger (the only member of the cast without "musical" experience) seems all of a jitter. She's supposed to start nervous Roxie's a genuine amateur but then turn into a pro before our eyes. Uh-oh.
Zellweger's great when she has to act, whether blowing raspberries at Velma's transparent overtures, poking fun at the "America's Sweetheart" tag (this stuff is close to home) or being strung along by puppet-master Flynn (the latter scene feels like an outtake from Bergman's Fanny and Alexander). But when she sings at the end and says, "Oh, that was terrible", you find yourself blushing in agreement. Nor does it make much sense that this character gets away with murder because of her physical charms. Thanks to the lighting, Zellweger's about as yummy as Bette Midler. She's always been an "ordinary" beauty, (which made her perfect for Bridget Jones); here she's not even wholesome. Her face seems puffy, her body gym-scrawny. Her hair resembles frazzled road-kill. Who thought up this look? Zeta-Jones?
As for Gere, he's cold and vain and nimble in just the right way. But the revelation is John C Reilly as Amos, Roxie's pudding-faced putz of a husband. He's not idealized but his creeping conviction that he's "invisible" has an eerie power. So, too, does the one execution we get to see. The hanging of a Polish woman, Hunyak, plops like a stone into the film's razzle-dazzle pond and sends out disquieting ripples. She was penniless and had no command of English, unable to use dollars or press-friendly clichés to save her skin. The show both does, and doesn't, go on for these failures.
Strange to say, while memories of Velma's glow and Roxie's gaucheness fade, the "disappearing acts" of Hunyak and Amos prove haunting.
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