Film Reviews


By • Jan 24th, 2003 •

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Looking for a wildly entertaining diversion? Try CHICAGO. A modern-day musical, it has all the spunk and charm of a classic, with the added benefit of enhanced camera effects. Enhanced is hardly the word for it: it is explosive.

As much as I may have tried to remain skeptical about this movie, I was won over early on by the Cell Block Tango, a captivating dance performed by six sultry women on death row, explaining their crimes of passions with excuses like “And then he fell on my knife. 14 times.”

Set in the roaring ‘20s, we first encounter saucy Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has shot and killed her husband and sister when she catches them in bed together. A pity, since this not only means the end of her marriage but the end of her vaudeville sister-act. On death row, Velma has lawyered-up with Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) who is famous for never losing a case thanks to the extravagant (and bogus) defenses he orchestrates for his clients for a mere $5,000. Velma is further aided by the busty Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah), the warden of the women’s cell block who, for a modest cash tip, can get you products from the outside world (anything from cigarettes to hair bleach) and can advise you on your future in vaudeville when and if you make it out of jail.

With her name all over the headlines, Velma commands public sympathy until Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) murders her lover Fred Casely. She tries to get her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to take the blame for it, but to no avail. Little blonde Roxy takes on Billy Flynn for her defense, befriends Mama, and steals Velma’s media spotlight, leaving her steaming. Velma suggests they join forces and start an act and Roxy snottily declines. She does not have the brains to understand the nature of media and that eventually a new, more sensational murder will push her out of the limelight too.

A particularly clever plot device is the fact that all the song and dance numbers occur in Roxie’s mind and thus “reality” and imagination are woven seamlessly throughout. For instance, external factors such as the tapping of water in Roxie’s jail cell sink or the rhythmic steps of a guard walking become the opening percussion in The Cell Block Tango.

John C. Reilly’s endearing performance as Amos, Roxie’s pathetically naïve husband is worth noting, as is his rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.” Never did a clown look so sad.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is a pleasure to watch in all her numbers, recalling Cyd Charisse’s good looks and sex appeal. She and Renee Zellweger make an odd pair, however. Catherine ends up looking incredibly large next to Renee’s tiny frame, which seems to detract from their dance numbers together.

Save a few scenes wherein Renee Zellweger’s performance seems awkward and forced, all in all, CHICAGO is an impressive achievement and a wild ride. So enjoy. It might just make you want to dance. Or incorporate fishnet stockings into your wardrobe.

(editor’s note: CHICAGO’s director, Rob Marshall, received a special award from the NBR at their annual gala ceremony. It was presented to him by Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere, who gushed that making the film was the most fun he’s ever had on a shoot. He then acknowledged that there were other directors he’d worked with in the audience, including Francis Ford Coppola, but without qualifying his jublilance, stuck to his guns that this was the high point in terms of enjoyability.)

Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: Bill Condon
Producer: Martin Richards

Renee Zellweger,
Catherine Zeta-Jones,
Richard Gere,
Queen Latifah,
John C. Reilly,
Christine Baranski

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