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Zap2it Oscars Coverage

REVIEW: Why 'Chicago' Doesn't Deserve to be the Oscar's Best Picture
By Mike Szymanski
Mon, Mar 24, 2003, 06:03 PM PT

The story moves, the stars are sexy, saucy and bawdy and the soundtrack makes a heck of an addition to your CD collection. "Chicago" may come across as a fun, feel-good musical romp, but it's not worthy of the Oscars, and it's certainly not worthy of the late great Bob Fosse.

Despite all the hoopla and the awards, this period musical of passion, fame and murder lacks the sensuality and spark that it's supposed to have -- or at least the on-stage version Bob Fosse had. Fosse's rendition was fast-paced, erotic and zingy. The musical numbers were dazzling and showy. The story of fame and making it big in showbiz was as familiar and accessible as it is in "Sunset Boulevard," "A Chorus Line" and "Fame."

But a stage musical should stay on the stage, and a movie should take it to more depth, more heights, more substance. That's where "Chicago" falls flat and becomes as blustery as the Windy City for which it's named.

The biggest problem is, that unlike "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof" or even "Hello Dolly!" the movie version of "Chicago" feels like it was merely the stage version just put up on the big screen. Even a musical that takes place mostly on the stage, like "Cabaret," more successfully translates to the big screen. The storyline has to take the characters off that stage and incorporate them into the world created by them musical.

"Chicago" seems so focused on the musical numbers rather than seamlessly becoming part of the storyline. Recall the memorable songs in "My Fair Lady," "Mary Poppins" and "Gigi," that not only add to the story, but propel the plot. In "Chicago," the numbers seem to stop the story as if a bright neon sign flashes "Insert Musical Number Here."

But that's not the worst of it. Yes, creative "Gods and Monsters" screenwriter Bill Condon may have figured out a way of adapting the '20s-style musical for the big screen (however yawn-inducing it may be), but the true crime here is the way that director Rob Marshall chose to film the dance numbers.

The amazingly in-sync choreography that seems so discordant at the same time -- a style that Fosse is famous for -- is lost with close-ups of bare thighs, hideously made-up faces and quick shots of feet that flash by so fast that it's almost impossible to figure out who belongs to what body part. The MTV-style of editing throws out the best of the dance numbers, particularly the one of lawyer Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere, which is a highlight of the stage version, but played as almost an afterthought in the film.

Maybe the tight editing is to excuse the out-of-step lead actresses, but even a slower Catherine Zeta-Jones could be more sexy than she's portrayed in her award-winning role as Velma Kelly. She's a mentor, of sorts, to Roxie Hart, (played by Renee Zellweger) who ends up shooting a man and goes to jail, which is run by Matron Morton (played by Oscar nominee Queen Latifah). As the public and press follow their cases, the gals fame rises and falls while the ladies are simultaneously wooed and shirked by Flynn.

Zellweger's whiny pouty-lipped poof faced and spindly attempt at playing an ingenue makes her nomination as best actress even more of a an abomination. She's irritating in the role, almost as much as her knuckle-head husband played by John C. Reilly, who's simply brilliant at every down-beat jerk role he ever plays. Roxie wraps her hubby around her little finger, to the point that he's willing to take the rap and even pay for her legal defense, and his sole musical number "Mr. Cellophane" man is perhaps the best part of the film.

That number is the only time, by the way, that the film actually takes a breath. Every other minute is a whoosh across the screen heading from one scene to another. The fast-talking dialogue, foot-tapping music and quick-time two-timing that's going on among the characters is enough to keep this pace moving, there's no need to make it even moreso with the editing. And yet, even the mellow "Mr. Cellophane Man" is mostly shot from above with a limited spotlight that cries out "staginess" and ignores the moodiness of the moment.

Some of the best subplots of the stage version are ignored -- as they were with "Cabaret" -- but the stories of some of the other gals in the slammer are almost as fascinating as Roxie and Velma's, and their singing is better, too.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like musicals. In fact, I thought "Moulin Rouge" was the best movie of the year last year, and I thought Baz Luhrmann's design and artistry should have been vastly rewarded. (The opening shot alone with the meandering camera through the set is amazing enough.) But where was all that pizzazz in "Chicago"?

Thank goodness that "Chicago" and it's success is going to greenlight other musicals in the future (most notably the gangster musical "Guys and Dolls" so I hear), although it was "Moulin Rouge" that really resurrected the genre.

It's just sad that this is the musical that has joined the ranks of the eight best picture musicals in Oscar history, and it lacks the charm that Mark Lester had in the last best picture musical "Oliver!" in 1968, or the talent of Gene Kelly in "American in Paris" in 1952, or the starry big-set spectacle of the second best picture ever to win an Oscar, "Broadway Melody" in 1928.

Ultimately, in the history of the Academy, people may be wondering what all that jazz was about "Chicago" in 2002.

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  • by Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
  • by Mike Szymanski, Zap2it
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