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Chicago (December 22/02)

Musicals tend to fall into one of two categories: Either they're tedious and overproduced (like Les Miserables) or they're entertaining enough but longer than necessary (Singin' in the Rain). Chicago falls under the first category.

Based on the long-running and quite successful stage play, Chicago takes place during the roaring '20s where jazz is a huge part of contemporary society. Our hero, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), spends most of her time hanging out in jazz clubs and wants desperately to have an act of her own. After she learns that the man she's been sleeping with has been lying to her about his connections (he insisted he had the know-how to make her famous), she shoots him in a fit of rage. In prison, she meets Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a legendary night club singer who's behind bars for killing her husband and sister. Roxie wants nothing more than to be exactly like Velma, and begins by hiring her lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Many, many song-and-dance numbers follow.

The biggest problem with Chicago, other than sheer overlength (the film runs close to two hours!), is a complete lack of memorable tunes. Unlike even 8 Women (which wasn't exactly a great movie, but did contain a number of catchy songs), Chicago makes the fatal mistake of including a bunch of terrible musical numbers. Dull and dreary, these tunes are anything but noteworthy, and the dancing that accompanies them is worse. There's no fun or joy involved in the myriad of showtunes, and it certainly doesn't help that director Rob Marshall has chosen to film them in virtual darkness. Chicago may be reminiscent of an old-time jazz club, with it's smokey ambiance and sultry lyrics, but that's precisely what makes it so unpleasant to watch.

Though the storyline must have been considered fresh and exciting when the play first premiered in the '70s, it's now as original as a cop show on CBS. Bill Condon's screenplay hits us over the head with the fact that instant celebrities tend to be forgotten soon afterwards, a point that's not exactly original - especially in a society that turns computer pitchmen into stars. And when the script isn't hammering home that redundant message, it's ripping off All About Eve - though to be fair, that aspect of the film is probably the most intriguing (but, of course, it's merely touched upon before another song-and-dance number bursts onto the scene). That, by the way, is the biggest problem with the film. Every time you start getting into the story, a musical sequence completely destroys the flow and stops the movie dead in its tracks.

At least Chicago is well acted. Zeta-Jones, an actress who tends to rival Carrot Top for most annoying screen presence, is surprisingly effective as Velma - a diva who's taken down a notch by Roxie. What's even more impressive is the fact that she's able to create such an interesting character, despite the best efforts of the script to keep her one-dimensional. Zellweger and Gere are expectedly charming and appealing, but it's John C. Reilly - as Roxie's sad sack husband - who steals the focus away from the three stars with his relatively small role. And his one musical number, which has him decked out as a circa 1930s clown, has got to be one of the strangest (yet oddly compelling) things I've seen all year.

The likelihood of Chicago converting those who hate musicals is slim at best; nobody's ever going to claim this movie is accessible for all audiences. But if you're into this sort of thing, it'll probably be a treat.

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© David Nusair