Roxie Hart, the dangerous dame played by Renee Zellweger in the movie "Chicago," is supposed to be a typical 1920s Chicago gal: a killer with the face of a cherub. But she's also a girl who wants to sing, dance and be a star-and the movie lets her fulfill that weird double fantasy. Based on the 1975 Broadway show directed, choreographed and co-written by the late Bob Fosse, it's a cynical Cinderella musical about corrupt people with big appetites becoming famous in a corrupt city, Prohibition-era Chicago-and it's staged as if the big song and dance numbers were coming right out of Roxie's feverish, greedy little brain.
Socking out her songs and story on stage, cluing us in to all the dirt from the time she shoots her faithless lover to her sensational trial and its strange aftermath, star-struck Roxie turns her sordid saga into a glitzy vaudeville act, while a slithery emcee-bandleader (Taye Diggs) calls the shots, a la "Cabaret."At her best, Roxie almost knocks the audience dead-and so do her stage-mates: fellow chanteuse-killer Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and their amoral tap-dancing lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).
When the three stars do their dance numbers, drowned in garish lights and glitz, singing saucy songs that reveal their dark souls, it's hard not to smile. They may not be great musical performers, but this is great musical material from the once-underrated, now revered show by Fosse and his "Cabaret" partners, John Kander and Fred Ebb. The original choreography has been refashioned by first-time movie director Rob Marshall, but Fosse is present in spirit, in the dance numbers. Charmingly sleazy and show-stopping, these dances catch some of the insinuatingly sexy, body-flaunting, grab-your-hat style made famous by Fosse in movies like "Cabaret" and "All that Jazz," and shows like "Chicago" and "Pippin." It's a shame Fosse isn't around for this movie too.
For that matter, it's a shame Chicago mostly isn't around; this is another runaway production, shot primarily in Toronto. And though it's true that the film is a period recreation, it suffers from a lack of any real sense of the city, any open air-or any views of Lake Michigan.
"Chicago" is very dark stuff and you may need a Fosse (or a Fosse acolyte like star-choreographer Ann Reinking in the hit 1996 Broadway revival) to truly bring it off. Based on William Wellman's 1942 crime-comedy movie "Roxie Hart"-in which Ginger Rogers played doll-faced Roxie and Adolphe Menjou was the duplicitous Flynn-the story carries us back to the high-spirited, violent gangland Chicago of "The Front Page" or "Some Like It Hot." Then, a pretty woman with a smart mouthpiece could get away with murder-because Chicago juries would never sentence a dame to death.
Though the 1942 "Roxie Hart" (one of iconoclast Stanley Kubrick's favorite films) was based on an earlier play and movie, the original inspiration was a real-life Chicago case; the current movie keeps that muckraking stance. We see Roxie, schooled by Flynn and goaded by Velma (who's in the pen for killing her sister/stage partner), ventilate her lover (Dominic West) because he lied when he said he could make her a star. The murder does just that: make Roxie a Chicago celebrity and toast of the scandal rags and of sob sisters like hard-shell radio reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski).
When Roxie hires Flynn, a silken shyster who never lost a case or kept a scruple, she seems on her way to an acquittal and show biz success. Along the way, she exploits and dumps her schmo husband Amos (John C. Reilly), hooks up with the prison's scheming matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), battles all her other prison rivals, including Velma-and maybe gets her chance to shine on stage.
Even a second-rate movie musical can occasionally charm your socks off, and "Chicago"-a flawed film version of a scintillating Broadway show-has enough bright moments (especially the "Cell Block Tango" and "All That Jazz" numbers) to make you feel deep nostalgia for the whole film musical form. That's a form that seemed dead for years until Baz Luhrmann revived it with last year's stunning "Moulin Rouge." Though "Chicago" is no "Moulin Rouge"-and certainly not the "Chicago" you can imagine being made by Fosse-it's fun, splashy and entertainingly nasty.
Zeta-Jones can belt out her numbers, Zellweger can purr hers, and Gere-a musician who played his own cornet solos in "The Cotton Club"-can sell his songs and even dance a spiffy little tap dance. They're better than you'd expect-and so is the movie. But though they hold the screen and act up a storm, they can't give the film the kind of musical energy and style Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera reportedly gave Fosse's version or Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth gave the revival. Only Queen Latifah has real musical self-confidence (in her big number "When You're Good to Mama") and only Reilly truly carries his song by acting, in his wistful rendition of "Mr. Cellophane."
Then too, the whole movie is haunted by a ghost-Fosse's. Fosse was on the verge of being hired to direct the movie "Chicago" when he died in 1987. It's a shame that he never got the chance. One of the great figures of American musical comedy on both stage and screen, and a peer of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen as a movie musical-maker, Fosse directed too few films and this was a chance for a classic. As good as Marshall and his stars sometimes are-and as durable and entertaining as the show proves to be-they can't catch the ghost. Fosse is irreplaceable and "Chicago" proves it.
3 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Rob Marshall; written by Bill Condon, based on the musical play with book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, based on the play "Roxie Hart" by Maurine Dallas Watkins; photographed by Dion Beebe; edited by Martin Walsh; production designed by John Myhre; songs by Fred Ebb (words) & John Kander (music); original film score by Danny Elfman; produced by Martin Richards and Harvey Weinstein. A Miramax release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: PG-13 (steamy situations and language).
Roxie Hart.....Renee Zellweger
Velma Kelly.....Catherine Zeta-Jones
Billy Flynn.....Richard Gere
Matron "Mama" Morton.....Queen Latifah
Amos Hart.....John C. Reilly
Mary Sunshine.....Christine Baranski
Kitty.....Lucy Liu Bandleader.....Taye Diggs
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.