It's 1920s Chicago, and all meek Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) wants is to be a jazz star like her idol, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But when a furniture salesman cheats Roxie out of a chance at stardom, she shoots him dead, and is sent to prison to await trial. It's in the slammer that she meets Velma, who is serving time for killing her sister and husband, and also looking for a way out of her case. The only man in town who can do this is Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a greedy, smooth-talking lawyer who's never lost a case, and can get anybody off for $5,000. Flynn takes Roxie under his wing, with Roxie finding the attention she craves from the public with her over-the-top murder trial.
"Chicago" (IMDb listing) is masterful entertainment. It's the type of film that leaps onto your lap and won't leave until you smile. A screen version of the Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse musical, "Chicago" belongs right on the big screen, where its trademarked shade of red can burn the brightest, and the shimmer of the sequins can be seen for miles. Of course, the topical cult of celebrity tale fits right in with today's world as well, but that's just an excuse for cinematic singing and dancing, which builds on the audience approval of 2001's "Moulin Rouge!," and takes it to a superior level.
The film is directed by Rob Marshall, who made his debut with the 1999 television musical "Annie." Since Marshall is no stranger to musicals, his skills are much needed in "Chicago" to bring this tricky lust fest to life. Marshall nails it, finding enchantment in the dark crevices and throbbing neon of this journey into sin. "Chicago" being Marshall's big screen debut is just the icing on the cake, as the filmmaking is so confident here, that I fear Marshall won't be able to achieve this level of competency again in his career.
The stroke of genius in this interpretation of "Chicago" is screenwriter Bill Condon (Oscar winner for "Gods and Monsters") taking all the sweat, indulgence, song and jazz, and placing it exclusively in the head of Roxie. This dismisses an unfair, but common complaint of implausibility in movie musicals, and also opens up the film to revel in the song and dance numbers, as they are limited only by the scope of Roxie's imagination. Within these boundaries, Marshall mixes the routines with bits of Fosse's substantial original set dressing and with the more minimalist approach taken by the recent stage revival. It works brilliantly, and the musical numbers (choreographed by Ann Reinking) burn the screen down with their power. They're so heated, I needed a cigarette when the film was over. The authority of the stage easily transfers to the screen, as Marshall makes takes careful steps not to glam up this version with unneeded fire and brimstone. Things are left as they were, and the film is aces for it.
At first glance, the casting for the film seems a bit odd. After all, Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart? Seems like a fish on a bicycle. Yet Zellweger is the ideal choice for this role, as she can easily nail both the crisp faux-virginal dew of Roxie, and the frenzied, publicity-craving murderess the character truly is. Singing and dancing also come naturally to Zellweger, as she sports a lovely voice. Catherine Zeta-Jones has the more demanding part of Velma Kelly, as so many people fondly remember Bebe Neuwirth in the role on Broadway. Neuwirth is missed, but Zeta-Jones fulfills her duties like a pro, wrapping her delightfully full-bodied voice around her numbers. She's fantastic, and the real highlight of the film is when Velma and Roxie finally get a chance to perform together.
Richard Gere is another story, as I was never quite taken with his vocal talents. He's fine in the role of Billy Flynn, as it adheres to a certain level of arrogance that Gere has never shied away from. Still, the role requires Gere to be the most animated he's ever been in his life, and there's fun to be had in that. To see him tap dance, or belt out a solo is odd, but "Chicago" is a huge about-face for the actor, and it's a kick to see Gere enjoy himself again.
"Chicago" is a delight from start to finish. It is one of the best stage to film translations in history, and an appreciated blast of nicotine and gin-stained air in the normally stuffy Oscar season.
Filmfodder Grade: A