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'Chicago' Loses Sizzle on Big Screen
Wed December 11, 2002 03:50 AM ET

By David Rooney

NEW YORK (Variety) - A stylish cast and some clever scripting solutions help "Chicago" make the transition from stage to screen with considerable appeal intact.

But despite these assets, plus the enduring kick of the superlative Kander & Ebb song score, there's something distinctly underwhelming about this film version, which dilutes a good deal of the live show's sizzle and wit while remaining to a large degree a theatrical experience. First-time feature director Rob Marshall and Oscar-winning "Gods and Monsters" screenwriter Bill Condon have spun the dark tale of two murdering floozies into a widely palatable entertainment, but the long-gestating film comes up short in both rhythm and personality.

Nonetheless, while "Chicago" may struggle to attract young audiences, it could score midrange business with older crowds drawn by the novelty of its all-singing, all-dancing stars. Miramax's awards-season push undoubtedly will be a major factor in the film's commercial profile.

Originally directed, choreographed and co-authored in 1975 by Bob Fosse, then stripped back into what amounted almost to a concert staging with a jazz orchestra onstage in its considerably more successful 1996 revival, "Chicago" wasn't an easy target for film, either. Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein and producer Martin Richards struggled for six years to pull the pic together.

The fundamental conundrum of how to sell a traditional musical to audiences unaccustomed to characters bursting into song was solved by Condon's script, which reimagines the numbers as the fruit of a stagestruck chorine's rich fantasy life, intercutting them with the parallel reality the songs narrate. However, while it effectively underlines points about the fleeting nature of fame, the indistinct line between celebrity and notoriety and the similarities between showbiz razzle-dazzle and a corrupt legal system, the film version boasts few significant innovations.

Instead, it offers a cocktail of elements borrowed from the stage show. Much of the dialogue and jokes are word for word, and conception of musical numbers strays very little. Pic also cribs from numerous movie musicals, ranging from a "Cabaret"-style nightclub opening to mimicry of the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Viewed in terms of its attempt to resurrect the musical as a contemporary film genre, "Chicago" is way ahead of lifeless blunders like "A Chorus Line." But it's arguably less buoyant or inventive than recent unconventional, and artistically controversial, tuners such as "Moulin Rouge," "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," "Dancer in the Dark" or "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Set in the Windy City in the Roaring '20s, the jazz-age story opens on sultry vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) taking the stage solo in what's previously been a sister act after surprising her husband with the offending sibling and rubbing out the adulterous duo. In the audience to witness her arrest is unworldly Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a chorus girl with dreams of stardom, married to gullible dolt Amos (John C. Reilly).

A few weeks later, Roxie wises up that her lover (Dominic West) has been stringing her along with promises to get her into showbiz. She guns him down in a fit of rage and winds up joining Velma on death row.

Making use of shrewdly connected prison warden Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah), Velma has lined up ace lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who keeps her media spotlight burning as he prepares for her trial. Roxie, too, secures Flynn's services when Amos stumps up a hefty cash advance. The lawyer concocts an elaborate convent girl-led-astray story for Roxie, making her the darling of the media and relegating Velma to the back pages. When a new murderess threatens to steal her thunder, Roxie consolidates her press profile by announcing she's carrying Amos' child.

The central relationship between Roxie and Velma carries less weight than the interaction between Roxie and Flynn. This undermines the effectiveness of the final act, already a weakness in the stage version, which lacked a satisfyingly punchy closing number after having stacked so many outstanding songs in the first half.

Best known for the 1999 TV remake of "Annie," Marshall has a solid background in musical theater that well serves the musical segs, which shift confidently between fantasy and reality. The device works nicely in numbers like Amos' acknowledgment of his own insignificance, "Mr. Cellophane"; the death-row dames' account of their misdeeds, "Cell Block Tango"; and in smartly staged nonmusical setpieces like the historic first hanging of a woman.

But too often the cross-cutting interrupts the rhythm of the songs to clutter the action, instilling a certain frustration at never seeing a song or dance number played out in full. Given that "Chicago" is a show that worked best on stage in a pared-down version, pic feels too busy, a perception aggravated by the cacophonous jazz that backs much of the spoken action.

Editor Martin Walsh cuts the film like a trailer, giving a semblance of briskness but skimping on the characters' dimensionality. The fast cutting also dulls some of the shine from the two leads' dance accomplishments. While she's no match for the sexy, robotic precision of Bebe Neuwirth, who originated the role in the 1996 revival, Zeta-Jones reveals herself to be a full-voiced belter and a more-than-creditable hoofer, making Velma a savvy, conniving but sympathetic temptress untroubled by moral scruples.

Zellweger also measures up well enough in the song-and-dance department, but convinces more in Roxie's initial persona as a borderline innocent than later, as she becomes more calculating and cold-hearted. As the character whose dreams bring much of the action to life, she remains a somewhat pallid figure.

Gere has fun embodying a soulless charmer in circus-master Flynn, but his lackluster courtroom-climax tap routine makes one long for a real dancer in the role, like Christopher Walken. Making the Matron a sharp exploiter with her eye firmly on the dollar but not completely without loyalty, Latifah socks across the saucy "When You're Good to Mama." But the character's rueful ballad "Class" -- arguably one of the show's best songs -- has been dropped from the film, despite being clearly set up.

Reilly is sweetly touching as the trusting sap, while Christine Baranski is arch and amusing as bleeding-heart radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Lucy Liu appears briefly as a socialite hellcat, and Chita Rivera, who played Velma in the original Fosse production alongside Gwen Verdon, cameos as a prison habitue.

Marshall's choreography retains some distinctive Fosse influences, particularly in the opening "All That Jazz" number -- nevertheless hampered more than any other song by excessive cutting away from the dancers -- but these nods suffer by comparison to Fosse's electric style.

Australian lenser Dion Beebe ("Praise," "Holy Smoke") doesn't always shoot the dance segs to best advantage, but places the action on a rich canvas of dark tones and bloody reds, combining with John Myhre's sharp production design and Colleen Atwood's slinky costumes to create a seamless look that blends theatricality with reality.

A new song written by Kander & Ebb and sung by Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, called "I Move On," is being added to the end credits, but was not in place on prints being press-screened.

Velma Kelly ........... Catherine Zeta Jones

Roxie Hart ............ Renee Zellweger

Billy Flynn ........... Richard Gere

Matron "Mama" Morton .. Queen Latifah

Amos Hart ............. John C. Reilly

Mary Sunshine ......... Christine Baranski

Kitty ................. Lucy Liu

Bandleader ............ Taye Diggs

Martin Harrison ....... Colm Feore

Fred Casely ........... Dominic West

A Miramax release of a Producer Circle Co. production. Produced by Martin Richards. Executive producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Sam Crothers, Bob Weinstein, Meryl Poster. Co-producer, Don Carmody. Co-executive producers, Julie Goldstein, Jennifer Berman.

Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay, Bill Condon, based on the musical play by Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Camera (Deluxe color), Dion Beebe; editor, Martin Walsh; original score, Danny Elfman; music, John Kander, lyrics, Fred Ebb; production designer, John Myhre; art director, Andrew Stearn; set decorator, Gordon Sim; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), David Lee; choreographer, Rob Marshall; assistant director, Myron Hoffert; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at Loews Astor Plaza Theater, New York, Dec. 3, 2002.

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