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Razzle-dazzle makes 'Chicago' burst out of the screen

Friday, January 03, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Chicago" begins pumping energy from the very start. The band pours out a brassy introduction and the vaudeville performers bump into each other backstage as the cry goes up: Where are the Kelly sisters?


RATING: PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements

STARRING: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah

DIRECTOR: Rob Marshall

OFFICIAL WEB SITE: www.miramax.com/chicago


Local movie showtimes


A cab pulls into the slush, a pair of gorgeous gams emerge, and we follow a swaying backside into the theater, but not before this babe vengefully tears a name from a poster on the wall. Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), her hair and costume as black as her heart, toes her mark in the nick of time and rises into view singing an insinuating "All That Jazz" that imprints itself into your brain.

The cops arrive to arrest Velma for murdering her husband and sister, whom she found in flagrante delicto just before leaving for her deliciously flagrant performance. A starry-eyed housewife in the audience, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), wants to be just like Velma. Sure enough, she shoots her lying boyfriend and finds herself up on murder charges as well.

And so begins the media vaudeville that is "Chicago," the long-awaited film adaptation of the Broadway hit by Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse. Itself adapted from a play in the 1920s, "Chicago" addresses a theme that never goes out of style. It's about making celebrities out of people accused of murder, all the better because they are sexy women.

The list of directors and actors attached to this project over the years is as long as Al Capone's rap sheet. The problem that defeated most of them was to figure out how to explain the characters breaking into song. Fosse literally staged it as a vaudeville revue, but cinema demands more realism.

Catherine Zeta-Jones imprints herself on the viewers' brain in "Chicago." Click photo for a gallery of pictures from the making of the movie. (David James / Miramax Films 2002)

Related story:
Pittsburgh director turns movie stars into Broadway players

Pittsburgher Rob Marshall -- a veteran Broadway hoofer, choreographer and director whose film credits until now were limited to television -- and screenwriter Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") found the solution. The musical numbers would be explained as figments of Roxie Hart's overactive imagination. The wannabe star would view her arrest, imprisonment and trial through the prism of her own hopes and dreams, not that the movie's version of reality exactly lacks "the old razzle dazzle."

Marshall's inventive staging -- and, certainly, the movie's nonstop cynicism -- will bring Fosse to mind, but the filmmaker's work stands out on its own.

Taye Diggs, as the band leader, introduces the songs with just the right touch of irony in his voice. The best numbers include a press conference in which Roxie's superstar lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), puts her on his knee like a ventriloquist's dummy and manipulates the strings of the marionette reporters. Queen Latifah, finally utilized to her deserved cinematic potential as prison matron "Mama" Morton, pulls out all the stops with her sexually charged "When You're Good to Mama."

John C. Reilly, as Roxie's bland husband, Amos, channels the great black vaudeville pioneer Bert Williams in "Mr. Cellophane." Gere, so often the sensitive male in his dramas, gives us one glimpse of that fellow before obliterating him from our consciousness as the slick, shallow Flynn in "We Want Billy." Where has THIS Gere been all our lives?

Actually, before he was an officer and a gentleman, Gere was a hoofer and a hooter -- he played Danny in "Grease," among other musical roles. But while decades have passed since then, he obviously didn't forget how to ride that bicycle. Zeta-Jones, best known in America as Mrs. Michael Douglas and for her roles in romantic films, hails from a musical theater background in the United Kingdom.

Zellweger is the real revelation. With not an iota of musical acting experience, she buckled down to her studies and comes up sparkling in her numbers. Marshall could have hired singers who can act. Instead, he hired actors and, if necessary, taught 'em to sing. The movie benefits.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Chicago" is that while it has the look and feel of a Broadway show, the screen can't contain it. The movie seems to burst right out of the frame with energy and verve and life. Cinematically and theatrically, it's the best of both worlds.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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