THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It appears that the musical is back. Last year, we got Baz Luhrmann's brilliant Moulin Rouge, which breathed new life into the genre. Hot on its heels comes Chicago, the long-awaited film version of the popular Broadway musical. Both films manage to reinvigorate the format - to make it applicable to modern audiences weaned more on music videos that old-fashioned Hollywood musicals. The fact that both are really great films doesn't hurt either.

In Chicago, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma, a cabaret star whose opening number - the famous "All That Jazz" - sets the tone for the whole picture. Just before going onstage, Velma murdered her husband and sister. Police come in at the end of her act and swoop her off to prison for the crime. Meanwhile, an aspiring singer/dancer named Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) shoots and kills her lover. Roxie's husband (John C. Reilly) initially tries to cover up for her, but the truth comes out and she, too, is put behind bars.

It turns out that Roxie is a big fan of Velma's, but the admiration isn't shared. Velma is actually kind of annoyed that this other woman has taken her place in the newspaper headlines. A competition develops, especially once Roxie hires Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), an infamous attorney who has never lost a case involving a woman accused of murder. He gladly takes Roxie's case, encouraging her to manipulate the media to build sympathy among the public. It's a skill Roxie is all too good at.

Chicago is set decades ago - and the play was written quite a while ago - but its subject matter is obviously quite timely. The parallels to such 15-minutes-of-fame publicity whores like Richard Hatch, Kato Kaelin, or Darva Conger is readily apparent. Like Velma and Roxie, they get a taste of fame, then invent new ways to keep the spotlight shining on themselves just a little bit longer. The characters are clearly meant to parody that whole "instant fame" phenomenon, yet they are more than just a joke; although on the surface they are vacuous fame-seekers, their motivations for being that way are fascinatingly down and dirty.

Catherine Zeta-Jones personifies bitchy egotism as the displaced celebrity Velma. Her part is relatively small compared to that of Renee Zellweger, who is astounding as the two-faced Roxie. Here's a character who is essentially innocent; she just wants to sing and dance. Her impulsive act of violence seems to surprise even her. Then - once she gets that taste of fame - a bit of ruthlessness sets in. She has finally achieved what she wanted, although not exactly for the reasons she had hoped. But fame is fame and that's all that counts. Zellweger has such a nice image that it's almost a shock to see her play someone more conniving. She does it beautifully and places herself as a frontrunner for an Oscar. Richard Gere is terrific as well, capturing that whole Johnny Cochran vibe. Flynn is a guy who understands what sells papers...and it ain't necessarily the truth. Gere really seems to be relishing the chance to play someone who invents such fabrications. Perhaps it's because he himself has been on the receiving end of some untrue (and cruel) news stories.

This is all well and good, but I know what you're thinking: How good are these major movie stars at singing and dancing? Well, Zeta-Jones did musical theater before getting into film, so she has some experience. She's a natural and an enthusiastic performer. There's real joy in her performance. Zellweger's on-screen singing repertoire is limited to the hilariously awful karaoke she performed in Bridget Jones's Diary. Happily, she's got a nice set of pipes in real life. I was most interested to see Richard Gere sing. Here's a guy, I thought, who probably can't hit a note to save his life. Surprise, surprise. Gere acquits himself well, especially as he finds a way to inject the humor of his character into the music.

Director Rob Marshall has choreographed the musical numbers very imaginatively. I loved one number, prior to a staged press conference, in which Flynn assumes the role of ventriloquist with Roxie as his dummy. During the sequence, he also plays puppet master to the press, who are shown as his marionettes. The famous musical number "Razzle Dazzle" is nicely staged as well, combining flash and satire in a virtuoso scene. Marshall finds an effective way of incorporating the musical sequences into the story without losing the meaning of the film's theme. For instance, during Roxie's trial, the song begins in a realistic-looking courtroom, then switches to a "production number" version on a fun-house mirror courtroom set, then back to the real courtroom, then back again.

Chicago - the play - is a time-tested success, having endured in popularity over the years. The movie version was probably bound to either be a disastrous flop or to hit the bullseye. With an extraordinarily good cast and an innovative director (as well as a sharp script by Gods and Monsters filmmaker Bill Condon), the big screen Chicago ranks as one of the movie events of the year.

( out of four)

Chicago is rated PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.

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