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8/22/2003

That's the 'Chicago' way


By Rob Lowman
Staff Writer

The song "Razzle Dazzle' that Richard Gere sings as the less-than-ethical defense lawyer in the Oscar-winning best picture "Chicago' is more than cynical commentary about a celebrity-mad, gullible America. It also to an extent describes the film itself.

While "Chicago' is filled with assets -- loads of leggy, slinky, dancing enjoyable assets, in fact -- director Rob Marshall's film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical lacks the heft that one of the show's creators, Bob Fosse, might have given it. Not so coincidentally, Fosse's piercing "All That Jazz' comes out today along with "Chicago' on DVD.

In "Chicago,' Marshall has given us plenty of Fosse's expressionistic dance style, but little of the director's jaundiced attitude despite the nasty story line. For those of you who haven't caught "Chicago,' the stage version or previous filmed versions -- notably the 1942 "Roxie Hart,' which was a comedy and not a musical although it starred Ginger Rogers -- here's the plot:

It starts with nightclub singer-dancer Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) offing her husband and sister when she finds them engaged in hanky-panky together. But since the show must go on, Velma drops by the club to perform a sultry, driving "And All That Jazz' before heading off to the clink. In the audience is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), an aspiring but not very talented singer-dancer herself who's hoping the guy she's cheating on her husband with will get her into show biz.

When Roxie finds out the guy's a fake, a gun gets pulled and she ends up in jail facing a murder rap. Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) runs the show at the jail, and when Roxie arrives, the star there is Velma, who is waiting to be defended by Gere's Billy Flynn in a case making headlines in all of Chicago's newspapers. Mama, however, takes pity on Roxie, gives her a few tips, and soon the understudy has moved up.

"Chicago' does have its joys. Latifah and Zeta-Jones -- the latter took home a supporting actress Oscar -- show they have the talent to be in a musical. Latifah offers up a rousing Bessie Smith-style "When You're Good to Mama,' and Zeta-Jones has enough musical chops (and legs) to make her Velma believable. Luckily, the DVD resurrects a sweet duet by the two -- "Class' -- that was cut from the film. And John C. Reilly as Roxie's cuckolded husband is the perfect clown, especially in his "Mr. Cellophane' number.

Gere and Zellweger are a bit problematic. Neither one is much in the song-and-dance category, although Marshall -- as expected -- defends them during his DVD commentary. It's doubtful they were ready for Broadway anytime soon, like he says. But then Gere's Billy only has to dance around the American injustice system, and Roxie isn't a good singer. So Zellweger's breathy Marilyn-like delivery is fine. All Marshall has to do is cover it up with razzle-dazzle.

"Chicago' ends up being a feel-good movie, but Marshall had the chance to give it some edge a la Fosse in his 1979 musical "All That Jazz.' That film was about a famed but dysfunctional Broadway and film director named Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), whose life parallels Fosse's own. The pill-popping, sex-addicted Gideon is trying to both edit a film about a legendary comedian (Fosse was editing "Lenny') and mount a Broadway musical as he spirals toward a heart attack (which Fosse had). But even in this self-critical and often self-loathing movie meditation, Fosse gives us lots of razzle-dazzle, including an erotically charged dance number and a spectacular ending that cuts between the false glitz of Gideon's life and the reality of death. Nothing in "Chicago' matches that impact.

!tag!f=CB Helvetica Condensed Bold s=9 l=11!tag!"Chicago' (Miramax; $29.99 on DVD) includes commentary by Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon, the deleted "Class' and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

"All That Jazz' (Fox; $14.98 on DVD) includes an interview with and some commentary by Scheider, and five Fosse clips.

{/TOP}Moore questions

You have to hand it to Michael Moore -- he has a dogged determination when tackling a subject. In his documentary "Bowling for Columbine,' it's guns in America. He begins with the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. His goal was to find out why this country is so gun crazy.

Moore looks at Canada, where there are fewer killings, and violence in England and Nazi Germany for comparisons. He chases down actor and former National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston to confront him about his pro-gun stance. He visits a defense plant and tries to draw a connection between the country's armaments and individuals with guns, and he stops by Kmart headquarters demanding the company quit selling ammunition. (The Columbine killers purchased their ammo at a Kmart.)

After awhile it seems that Moore is -- pardon the expression -- trying a shotgun approach to finding an answer. "Bowling for Columbine' did resonate with a lot of people, winning the Oscar for best documentary. Throughout, Moore raises a lot of legitimate questions about guns in America. Are we a society in fear? Or are we really protecting our rights to bear arms? Is there something in the American psyche prone to violence? Even if you find Moore's personality disagreeable, you shouldn't dismiss the issue.

Moore never comes up with an answer, but that's because there is no one answer. In light of the Columbine tragedy and others like it, an ongoing national dialogue about guns and violence in America is warranted, and "Bowling for Columbine' will kick start any discussion.

Moore first made waves with his 1989 documentary "Roger and Me,' in which he chased down General Motors CEO Roger Smith to confront him about all the workers who had been laid off when GM pulled out of Flint, Mich., and how it was ruining the town. The film, also out on DVD today, still packs a punch.

!tag!f=CB Helvetica Condensed Bold s=9 l=11!tag!"Bowling for Columbine' (MGM; $26.98 on DVD) includes interviews with Moore, a teacher's guide, and a return to Littleton six months after the release of the film.

"Roger & Me' (Warner; $14.99 on DVD) includes commentary from Moore.!end!