Thursday, April 29, 2021

Chicago (2002)

Director: Rob Marshall                                    Writer: Bill Condon
Film Score: Danny Elfman                              Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly

As much as I love films about music, people playing and recording and listening, I’ve never been a fan of the musical. That’s probably one of the reasons that I like the musicals from the 1930s so much, because most of them are backstage stories that take place in a theater, and the musical numbers are just that: performances at a show. But the modern “Broadway” musical as such, where characters break out into song in the middle of the story--the kind of thing Saturday Night Live pokes fun at--leaves me unmoved at best, and irritated at worst. Chicago, the 2002 Academy Award winner for best picture, definitely falls into the later camp for me. As with so many of these stage-to-film adaptations, what works in a darkened theater with live musicians and live actors, doesn’t necessarily translate to film. The film has an impressive pedigree, based on a 1926 Broadway play by Maurine Dallas Watkins that was turned into film a year later, and then a musical choreographed by Bob Fosse in 1975, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. It was to have been filmed by Fosse after his success with Cabaret, but the project was shelved after his death. The tremendous success of the revival on Broadway in the mid-1990s, however, provided the impetus for a modern film version a few years later with a new screenplay by Bill Condon, who would then go on to pen Dreamgirls.

The film opens backstage at a jazz club in the mid 1920s--with musicians playing an anachronistic version of jazz designed for modern ears rather than the real thing--and the manager getting the next act ready to go onstage. Performer Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to the club late, and hides the bloody gun in her suitcase. Renée Zellweger is in the audience watching, hopeful that her tryst with Dominic West will get her a spot onstage. When she finds out later he’s been lying to her, she shoots him dead. Then her husband, John C. Reilly, comes home and tells the police that West had broken into the apartment and was killed in self-defense--by Reilly. As the police question them, Zellweger imagines she’s on the club stage singing, but before long Reilly figures out what really happened and gives her up. After being processed at the jail, she finds herself in the charge of prison matron Queen Latifa . . . which leads to more singing. Zeta-Jones is also in for murder, but has a very different experience because she has money and fame, and Latifa promises to get her out for a cut of her earnings. Then Zellweger tries to ingratiate herself with Zeta-Jones in order to get out as well, but fails, and so Latifa offers her Richard Gere, a big shot lawyer who can get her acquitted. If she has the money. Ironically, it’s Reilly who gets it for her and Gere takes the case, turning her into a media sensation in order to influence every possible juror before the trial.

The pacing is fast, the cracks are wise, and the whole thing is so stylized and artificial that it’s difficult to generate any real interest in any of it. The acting is equally outsized and uninteresting. In a way it’s difficult to categorize the film because its 1970s beginnings are so clearly a part of the production. The performances, the dancing, the songs, are all from a different era. The dance routines definitely have Fossee’s fingerprints all over them and, as such, it is a loving tribute to the man. But the performances themselves as performances--even including Queen Latifa--seem fairly banal and routine because of the casting of actors rather than real jazz singers. But then that was by design, to create an instant audience for the picture. As a result, it’s just one a string of musical debacles like Les Miserables and Mama Mia that, while filmed and constitute the definition of a movie, are anything but cinematic. Perhaps I’m jaded--okay, I know I’m jaded--but this just isn’t something that I’m remotely interested in watching, and if it hadn’t won an Oscar for best picture I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near reviewing it. Clearly I’m an outlier, though, as the film earned a ton of Oscar nominations and took home six--four of them in the technical categories--and is still very popular with audiences. If you like Disney movies and fantasy history, then Chicago is definitely the film for you. As for me, I’m going to stick with Sylvia Sidney in Ladies of the Big House.

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