CHICAGO (Rob Marshall, 2002)

A lot is missing from Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago, and much of it can be summed up in a single word: heart. Unlike the marvelous 1942 Wild Bill Wellman comedy Roxie Hart, which is based on the same 1920s play as the Watergate-era stage musical, Maurine Dallas Watkins’s Chicago, Marshall’s chilly, frilly film gives us nothing and no one to root for. It’s a nasty film about people who are nasty or pathetic (or both), and, in its flip-flops between reality and dreams (both equally attuned to theatrical artifice), it seldom lights on a recognizably human element. At the center of the film is Renée Zellweger, whose Roxie Hart has none of the complexity or comic zest of Ginger Rogers’s 1942 portrait of a girl so aching to get into show business that, while on trial for murder, where the outcome may be her own hanging, she is transfigured into an image of unbridled hopefulness, as in a flurry of self-attentiveness she smiles and adjusts her curls, upon hearing that Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld may be in the audience—I mean, courtroom. By contrast, nothing stirs in Zellweger’s flat, sour, sneering, one-note performance.

Nor is Bill Condon’s skimpy script a match for the brilliant one that Nunnally Johnson wrote for the 1942 film. The Production Code in place at the time demanded Roxie’s innocence of the crime of murdering her lover, who instead of being her lover had to seem more like an unwanted wolf, since Roxie is headed for acquittal of the capital charge against her. Thus Johnson devised a surgically sharp narrative frame that relegates the account of Roxie’s trial to a flashback correlative to the barroom reminiscence of a man who was smitten with her back then—at the time, a cub reporter (George Montgomery). We watch fascinated, realizing that the reporter’s account is angled to place Roxie in the best possible light, especially since we learn at the end that the boy and Roxie themselves became a couple. In short, Johnson trumped the Code, for Roxie might indeed have committed the crime for which her husband, Amos Hart, was subsequently charged. Wellman gives us no less than Marshall the possibility of an unrepentent murderess, but Wellman, guided by Johnson’s script, enriches this by deftly presenting it through the prism of a man still proud to have ended up with “the prettiest girl in the whole history of Cook County”! And more: Homer Howard’s still-smitten narration creates a profound meditation on the interaction between the reality of the person whom one loves and the image of the meta-person one perceives with a transformative eye deeply rooted in the heart. Back in the present, the final shot of Roxie, Homer and their brood of children in a cramped car collapses the fabulous flashback into the nut-and-bolts of marital reality. There’s nothing so shattering as this in Marshall’s papier-mâché remake.

Indeed, there is almost nothing of value in the 2002 film, except for the sprightly and occasionally haunting set of tunes penned by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and (surprisingly) well sung by Zellweger, and terrifically well sung and “put over” by Richard Gere, who began his career in musical theater, and who, giving us “that old razzle-dazzle,” steals the show as Billy Flynn, Roxie’s shifty mouthpiece. (Adolphe Menjou, playing Flynn, is splendid, too, in the Wellman film.) Little else, though, seems to work in Marshall’s blast of nothingness; even the sets, costumes and hairstyles fall flat. Above all, his film lacks the thematic unity, the purposefulness, that the narrative frame imparts to the 1942 version—a frame, of course, that didn’t exist in Watkins’s play. The media frenzy attending Marshall’s version of the trial, plugged into the O.J. Simpson event (we get the familiar phrase “trial of the century” lest we miss the connection), is too little developed to have the portrait of the trial’s environment rise above the level of spoof into the realm of parody, and (as with the overrated 1952 Singin’ in the Rain) satire, which is a yet higher form of comical expression, is even further out of reach. By contrast, the Wellman film is substantially more than a flimsy piece of escapism; just about everything works in it, including a dazzling Rogers and Hermes Pan’s glorious dances.

There’s some dancing, too, in the newest version (there was a 1927 film version of the Watkins play as well), and Marshall, steeped in mentor Bob Fosse’s style, also choreographed. (A lot of this film mimics Fosse’s 1972 Cabaret.) Dancing, yes; dances, no. For Marshall has framed many shots so that when feet are presumably dancing we see only heads bobbing and hair flinging, and he has bits-and-pieced both songs and dances so that the unity of each musical mini-event can’t be grasped, if any such unity exists. Stylistically, this works exactly once, on the occasion of Billy Flynn’s big dance, which in fact is not a dance but simply a string of steps to bring bright and funny visual punctuation to the fact that Flynn is “tap dancing” around a delicate issue in court—the scene with which the dancing is interspliced. The style works in this instance because it has a definite purpose related to the unfolding story (as well as the added benefit of masking Gere’s inexperience as a dancer); but everywhere else everything else that “breaks up” a dance number—whether a hyperactive camera, inapt framing, or rapid back-and-forth editing between a dance and some nonmusical action—grates. Those who applaud this film as the musical film’s triumphant comeback must be joking. As Pauline Kael correctly said (for other reasons) about West Side Story (Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961), this is a musical for people who hate musicals.

Nevertheless, Chicago (as did West Side Story) won the Oscar—although we’ve been assured by the press that had Academy voters had another week or two, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist would have squeezed ahead. (Does that make The Pianist the Hubert Humphrey of movies?) I don’t know; the Academy makes a lot of choices like this one. Consider, for example, Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), a film about the Holocaust that says nothing whatsoever about the Holocaust and uses the tragic event as a whacked-out occasion for sentimental melodrama. Similarly, while Chicago weaves around and about possible themes, it ends up saying nothing about anything; but it’s hyper-energetic all the way. The Academy loves movies that are free of substance or—it’s the flip side of the same coin—simplify human experience by reducing it down and pinning on it a blatant social message. Mostly, these voters hate good movies.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also won an Oscar, as best supporting actress, playing Velma Kelly, who, like Roxie, is in jail awaiting trial for capital murder. Velma’s victims, whom she discovered in bed together, were her spouse and her “sister,” with whom she had a stage act. The film faintly implies that her “sister” wasn’t really her sister but her lesbian lover. Not so faintly, the cheek-stroking jail matron, played confidently by rapper Queen Latifah, is presented as a lesbian. (In the 1942 film, Sara Allgood gave the part the same orientation—and got away with it because the American censors probably didn’t know what a lesbian is.) Mind you, there were better actresses from whom to choose, who weren’t nominated (Jennifer Beals and Isabella Rossellini in Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, to name two), but any Academy voter who marked his or her ballot for Zeta-Jones over Latifah must have feared retribution from Zeta-Jones’s powerful producer-husband. As Kelly, Zeta-Jones does nothing but strike attitudes. (She sings and dances nicely, however.) On the other hand, Latifah’s “Mama” Morton runs riot soliciting “money” from inmates for the “reciprocity” of withholding brutal treatment from them. Like Gere’s Billy, this is a fully knowing performance, full of sly and subtle inflections, and (as with Gere) backed up by a vibrant ability to deliver a song.

The rest of the cast is capable. Playing the part very differently than (wonderful) George Chandler did in Roxie Hart, John C. Reilly is an engagingly wimpy Amos Hart. He puts over his big song, “Mr. Cellophane,” in fine, wimpy fashion; but he’s no Joel Grey. I do not like Christine Baranski—on television, at least. Here, as Mary Sunshine, the tabloid news hound covering the county jail and the trial, she is extraordinarily good. (Spring Byington was nifty in the part in the Wellman film.) As Baranski plays her, Mary Sunshine is in a perpetual zonked zone, as if dissociated from her daily job yet thoroughly defined by it. She, too, would have been a more Oscar-worthy choice than Zeta-Jones.

Let’s face it: Anybody would have been more Oscar-worthy than Zeta-Jones, who can thank her lucky spouse that she has gold-plated buttocks to grab onto.




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