Chicago has been kicking around Hollywood for 60 years. Two previous film versions exist, and the story finally was musicalized in a 1975 Broadway show directed by Bob Fosse and composed by Kander and Ebb, the songwriting team behind Cabaret. Efforts to film the musical Chicago have waxed and waned for years, with innumerable stars attached at various times: Rosie O'Donnell, Goldie Hawn, Madonna, John Travolta, Kevin Spacey. Based on the 1942 play Roxie Hart, Chicago captures a not-so-unique period in history when Americans were obsessed with scandal and instant celebrity (see The Anna Nicole Show, American Idol). Keeping up with famous murderers was a national pastime.
Particularly intriguing among 1920s homicidal fascinations were the husband-killers. Chicago introduces us to several of them -- most prominently, Roxie herself (Renee Zellweger) who, in the '20s, gunned down her lover when his promises of helping her become a star turned out to be lies told to get her in the sack. A mousy beauty, Roxie is immediately out of place in prison among harsher, angrier women. But it's not long before she figures out the system and learns to stay afloat as the media favorite. You see, there's an attorney in Chicago who's never lost a case: Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), and as long as he can make headlines, he's your best friend. When a new flavor-of-the-month comes along, so goes Billy's attention. Roxie goes to substantial lengths to make sure she's Billy's #1 star. Meanwhile, last month's flavor is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose husband made the fatal mistake of playing with the wrong half of Velma's sister act. (So too went the sister.) Velma's not used to being outshone and does whatever she can to top Roxie's celebrity. Velma's glam-vamp posturings are no match for Roxie's newly created Girl Next Door routine. So, with a little help from the prison matron, Mama (Queen Latifah!), Velma concocts a plan to undo Roxie's defense and put herself back on top.
Richard Gere's Billy Flynn, explaining what the jury and media and public really want, sings "Give 'em that razzle dazzle." Director Rob Marshall follows through on Billy's advice and razzles and dazzles the hell out of this movie. Marshall, known primarily as a choreographer and as the director of the TV Annie a few years ago, delivers a powerful punch in the sequins-and-feathers fabulousness department. The singing and dancing are great, and the quick and choppy editing of each sequence is razor-sharp. (Some may hate this, and I suspect that it masks the more skilled hoofers standing in for the more complicated dance moves -- but pish! The results are dynamic and rousing.) The film's only drawback is that, in dividing into book scenes and fantasy musical numbers, the talky time just can't sustain the energy and attention of the flashy songs and dance. Ah well -- the musical numbers are never far off.
Zeta-Jones, in particular, is fantastic. Her opening number, "All That Jazz," sets a high bar of pace and style for the rest of the film, and her "Act of Desperation" (a plea for Roxie's cooperation that displays her old act's moves, sans sister) shows that Zeta-Jones, a professional dancer before turning actress-cum-Mrs. Michael Douglas, truly has the right stuff.
Zellweger, more actor than dancer, is particularly good at suspending disbelief in high-concept dramadies (Nurse Betty leaps to mind). She balances Roxie's vulnerability and manipulation with great skill (in fact, she holds the movie together) and pulls off the jazzier demands of the role just fine, albeit in Zeta-Jones' formidable shadow but that's okay -- her star power is based on her scandal, not her soprano. Additionally, there are extremely sound supporting performances from Gere (who has a strong, if not pretty, musical-theater voice), Latifah (who steals the show with her bawdy "What Mama Wants"), and John C. Reilly as Roxie's doltish husband.
Anyone expecting the depth of Cabaret will be disappointed in Chicago's relatively thin story and its broadly drawn characters. However, even as Chicago mocks those in the spotlight who have arrived there by style over substance, it delivers that style 100 percent.