Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 01/31/03 06:53:10

"It could have been set anywhere really..."
3 stars (Average)

'Moulin Rouge' blasted musicals back into the public consciousness with glitter, pzazz, panache and 100 mile an hour editing to everyone's delight or horror, depending on your point of view. It was only a matter of time therefore the next musical would come along. So Rob Marshall's 'Chicago' is first out of the blocks and it's both surprising and unsurprising. Unsurprising that it's an established musical with the songs already well known. But surprising that so little is done with the possibility of film, leaving it feeling like hardly more than a night out to Broadway.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is Velma Kelly, one half of a famed sister act renowed for their sensual jazz performances on stage. Velma however, becomes the only half left after catching her sister in bed with her husband and rewarding them both with a bellyful of lead.

Roxie (Renee Zellweger) is an ambitious wannabe screwing around behind her husbands back (John C Reilly) in order to get an act. After it becomes clear she'd being strung along, she also plugs her lover, ending up in the same jail as Velma and under the watchful eye of Mama (Queen Latifah).

Both desperate for freedom and as many celebrity inches they can manage in the gossip columns, the imprisoned twosome both compete for the services of celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn, (Richard Gere).
Agreeing to take on both of their cases, but favouring Roxie over Velma, so begins a merry-go-round of fame, infamy, celebrity and popularity as both suffer the highs and lows of being in the public eye.

Musicals essentially live and die by the music, and 'Chicago' is on a winner here. There's no post-modern reinvention here, just the old favourites reproduced for film. Marshall knows better than to tinker with established highlights and so lets the songs lead the film, rather then let his direction take control.

However, it's worth wondering what would have happened had he taken less of a timid approach. He seems too scared to approach the song and dance with anything like flair and just takes them as they are on stage, and gives them a bigger audience. Almost every song is actually performed on a stage.

Yes, the songs are great from 'All That Jazz' to the 'Cell Block Tango' but why the insistence on keeping them on a stage? Why not fully exploit the possibilities of a musical on film and branch them out? There's rarely an integration of reality and fiction, or a blurring of the boundaries. Occasionally it does, like the media misleading 'We Both Reached For The Gun', which sees Gere as a puppet-master controlling the journalists by strings from above.

Most of the time however Marshall seems content simply to place the camera at the front of stage and capture the choreography as it's always been. Good, yes, thrilling, no.

It's even more of waste when some of the cast are so good. Both Zeta-Jones and Zellweger have a fine pair of lungs (steady boys) and are great in their parts. Zellweger comes off best making Roxie part diva, part victim, part star-struck little girl. Zeta-Jones can certainly sing, but doesn't make Velma as alluring as she should be. But that sums up the films problem. For a satirical look at fame, it's nowhere near alluring enough. It's draped in murky and sleazy reds and purples, when it should shine. Even when it's supposed to be sleazy, it's just not sexy, dark or funny enough. Again, the timid direction from Marshall lets it down, with not enough being invested in the characters. For two characters who apparently loath each other, there's little friction between Velma or Roxie either.

The only character to win sympathy is Reilly as Mr. Hart. From his bumbling Oliver Hardy look, to the touching performance of 'Mr. Cellophane', Reilly quietly steals the film from under the noses of everyone else in one of his trademark loser roles.

But I did say some of the cast are good. Which brings us to Gere. Now Gere is fine capturing the rougish twinkle of Flynn. But unfortunately a lot of singing is needed here, and Gere is frankly painful. He just has a bad voice, and from when he's stripping down to his underpants in his first number, he just never looks wholly comfortable.

So did I enjoy 'Chicago'. Yes, and I'd advise anyone else to give it a try. But it plays like a safe, by-the-numbers, attempt at pleasing those who had a heart attack during 'Moulin Rouge'. Although 'Chicago' isn't suited to that type of approach, it's still a shame that when it could be belting it's heart out, it's singing shyly to itself. The cast give it their all so why couldn't Rob Marshall?

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