Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chicago: All Razzle Dazzle, Little Substance.

The Good: Good music, Moments of direction
The Bad: Film doesn't know what it wants to be, Character issues
The Basics: In a disappointing musical drama, murderess Roxie Hart hires a smarmy lawyer to get out of a death sentence.

There is something delightful sometimes in taking a minority position on a popular work. I do try to go into every experience open-minded, but sitting with my wife and watching Chicago, I was almost instantly turned off to the film. While I have no particular prejudice against musicals, I found myself underwhelmed by Chicago and am astonished that voters in 2003 thought this was the best film of the year. One suspects that the sheer star power associated with the movie pushed it over in many viewers' minds.

But the truth is, Chicago is a sloppy film and much of the blame for that may be placed squarely with director Rob Marshall. Marshall does not seem to know if he is simple recreating the stage play Chicago for the big screen - limiting his sets to stages for musical numbers, presenting things like blood during the dance numbers with kerchiefs, etc. - or if he is making a movie unlimited by a theater's four walls (cutting together shots inside and outside jail cells, mixing settings, etc.). The result is a jumble that is terribly unsuccessful. The best example of the transfer to screen working better would be The Phantom Of The Opera. In that film, when the Phantom takes Christine into the sewers, the movie goes from the theater to a sewer set and the lair is clearly different. By contrast, when this occurs in the stage production of The Phantom Of The Opera, the players are limited to dimming the lights and using dry ice to create the illusion of the sewers. In Chicago, outside a few shots that mix the cinematic potential of the stage play with stage-type imagery, much of the film is presented as if it were the stage play being caught on camera. And the camera work and editing are often frenetic, making the movie seem strangely desperate to sell how flashy it is without backing it up with real substance.

In Chicago, Velma Kelly is arrested after her stage show for the double murder of her husband and sister as the envious Roxie Hart looks on. Roxie returns to her apartment with her lover, who tells her he is leaving and generally berates her before she shoots him. Her husband, the dimwitted Amos, takes the fall until he realizes that the body on the floor is not that of a stranger, but of a salesman he and his wife knew. Roxie is incarcerated with Velma and Roxie soon learns the ways of the cellblock under Matron Mama Morton.

Mama has an idea on how to save Roxie's life, which is to hire defense attorney Billy Flynn. Amos and Roxie come up with every cent they can and Billy takes their case - despite them falling below his requisite $5,000 retainer. Soon, Billy is trying the case in the media and Velma is jealous because Roxie is now stealing the attention she needs to win her case. As the murderesses try to win the public's heart, Billy gets a trial date for Roxie and she dreams of being exonerated in order to pursue her dream of singing and dancing on stage.

Chicago might work as a stage musical and it could have worked as a film - even a musical - but the blending of the two mediums falls flat. So, for example, when the women on death row are singing about their crimes, they do a dance number within a framed jail set which seems very much like a set decoration. At various points, though, the performer flashes to a time and place outside that set to tell part of their story, only to come back within the theatrical sets. Sometimes, this is for just a single shot and the overall look is sloppy with the mixing of the two mediums. As well, there are some obvious and terrible bluescreen shots of the streets of Chicago which are appallingly bad.

As for the merits, the plot includes tangents involving Mama singing about how corrupt she is, another inmate exhausting her appeals and being sentenced, and the next flash in the pan arriving at the jail. The post-Roxie killer, played by Lucy Liu, has a single distracting song before Roxie thinks on her feet and gets the spotlight back. Part of what makes this so irksome is that Roxie and Velma are unlikable characters, with Billy being the archetypal smarmy lawyer who is also hard to root for. So, just because Roxie thinks on her feet does not make her a more likable character. She is still dim, conniving and a liar.

Amid plot-relevant songs, like one where Roxie allows Billy to throw a press conference where she is essentially his puppet as he plays the media to take Roxie's side, there are other numbers that might be impressive on stage, but fall flatter in the film context. Catherine Zeta-Jones presents a song and dance number as Velma wherein she shows Roxie what her routine with her sister on stage was. Zeta-Jones sings, dances and the camerawork is willed with grand moves and cuts which accent every thrust, bright-eyed smile and foot tap. The editing here is so choppy, though, Zeta-Jones could have simply been making individual moves, getting them on camera and having them cut together. In other words, the continuity of movement is broken up so badly that the scene looks awful. The impressive aspect to this scene would have been if it could have been done in one take, which is what theater performers are forced to do. In this context, the scene is assembled and is underwhelming for anyone who enjoys dance or theater.

On top of the unlikable characters who are out to save their own skin or make a lot of money off the suffering of others, no matter how unscrupulously they do it, the acting is not terribly impressive. Catherine Zeta-Jones's on-screen charisma seems to be based entirely on her bugging her eyes out during quick cuts in the dance numbers and Renee Zellweger plays Roxie Hart with the same annoying whiny quality as her character from Cold Mountain. And while Richard Gere and John C. Reilly hold their own with the singing and dancing, Queen Latifah's performance is utterly unsurprising given her start as a singer!

On the acting front is where Chicago is most overrated. Reilly's acting has him performing as yet-another working-class dimwit, which we've seen plenty of times before from him. In fact, we've seen that from Reilly about as frequently as we've seen Richard Gere play a charismatic man with sparkling eyes and a sexy smile. These are good casting decisions. But Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, Gere, Latifah and Reilly all flop here as actors as the viewer is entirely uninvested in any one of their characters. They shine as singers and dancers, which might surprise some viewers, but singing and dancing ability is not the same as acting.

The result is a period film that is a mediocre presentation of a stage musical, trying only half-heartedly to be something more than what it is.

For other musical films, please check out my reviews of:
The Little Mermaid
The Broadway Melody
The Nightmare Before Christmas

[As the winner of the 2003 Best Picture Oscar, this film is included in "W.L.'s Best Picture Project" which is available by clicking here!]


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my ever-growing index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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