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Liz Smith Liz Smith
This 'Chicago's' on Fire

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December 17, 2002

'Enough! I'm whipped! Uncle!" I say.

'Tis the season for blockbuster movies, but this year is a genuine embarrassment of riches. Barely recovered from the exquisite emotionalism of "The Hours," then the dazzling inventiveness and dash of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," and the explicit violence and grunge of "Gangs of New York," now comes "Chicago," a movie that seemed destined never to be made. When it finally was being made, it engendered remarks like, "Can any of those people sing and dance? ... What a weird cast ... Oh, well, too bad it'll never be done right." The filming was very quiet, leading to the conclusion that this Broadway-born, ice-pick sharp musical fable of infamy, murder and media was somehow being tossed into the garbage by Hollywood. (Cheers to producer Marty Richards for not letting that happen!)

After sitting through "Chicago," I must admit not one of the past cast possibilities - Madonna, Goldie, Bernadette, Liza, Barbra even - could be more perfect than Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and - total shock - Richard Gere. Maybe the impact is so great because of the element of astonished surprise that their unexpected gifts provide. (Clever camerawork helps the principals appear to be great on their toes - director Rob Marshall employs a lot of the old razzle-dazzle! Still, the stars work their backsides off, no doubt about it.)

"CHICAGO" will go down as one of filmdom's great musicals. Take your pick of the best; "Chicago" compares brilliantly. Don't go to see this movie if you have even the slightest touch of respiratory trouble - it leaves you breathless, literally. If you thought the new millennium musical genre was refashioned with "Moulin Rouge!" you are mistaken. "Chicago" makes Baz Luhrmann's cinema "breakthrough" look pretentious and overedited; a two-hour MTV music video in period costume. And, with all due respect to the talents of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, the stars of "Chicago" really sing, belting out those ravishingly rough 'n' tough Kander and Ebb lyrics like born vaudevillians playing to the back of a packed house. It is besides the point whether they're up to a live act. For the purposes of this effort, and with a healthy nod to technology, they trumpet like theater pros.

The super-cynical theme of "Chicago" - if you can't be famous, be infamous - is as old as time and as American as apple pie. Society coarsens with each nanosecond, and the desperate thirst for personal recognition plus the media willingness to encourage outlandish behavior, couldn't be more current. This, even though murderous Velma Kelly and her equally lethal acolyte, Roxie Hart, inhabit the roaring '20s. The film is all dark glitter and sordid smoky hues, evocative and luscious. Glamour at its most ominous.

Theater mavens, though admiring Marshall's screen adaptation, will be quick to say Bob Fosse's legendary vision is not so evident. But you can see that in full flower on Broadway, where the brilliant revival is still white-hot.

Renée Zellweger - burning with the desire to be famous, no matter how or why - gives Roxie Hart pathos and fury. She comes across like a whippet-thin Marilyn Monroe with a gun and attitude. Her face is alternately screwed up with envy, slack with despair or sensuously alive in fantasy (the musical numbers happen mostly in Roxie's fevered head, a brilliant device). This is Renée's career best to date.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as the tough Velma, is an explosive volcano of sex, beauty and movement. If she wasn't half as good a dancer and singer as she appears to be, she'd still be jaw-droppingly right. Zeta-Jones is the most voluptuously gorgeous creature on movie screens today. She plays the hardened showgirl Velma with just the right touch of vulnerability and humor. She is a knockout.

RICHARD GERE as the slimy, slick, seductive lawyer Billy Flynn is perfect, and he sings and dances like you wouldn't believe, with tremendous humor and brash confidence.

Keeping up with Gere and "les gals" is the magnificent Queen Latifah as Mama Morton, the corrupt prison matron. Though Latifah's number "Class" did end up on the cutting room floor (wait for it on DVD), her one showstopper, "When You're Good to Mama," burns celluloid, and her presence throughout is a randy pleasure.

John C. Reilly as Roxie's hapless dope of a husband, is wonderfully clueless and poignant ... Taye Diggs is a handsome Band Leader ... Lucy Liu rips it up as Go-to-Hell Kitty ... Christine Baranski is sly and funny as sob sister Mary Sunshine ... the dancers divine.

The entire film and everyone in it is sensational. I can't imagine this won't be a smash and bring in Oscar nods for best picture, director, actor, actress (Renée and Catherine, head to head) and supporting actress (Queen Latifah). People say "Chicago" is going to "bring back the musical," as if the golden days of MGM are about to return, and we'll we awash in tap-happy spectaculars. Not likely. But if Hollywood can squeeze out something this brilliant, daring and tuneful every few years, why, that would be just right!

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.


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