Main cast: Renée Zellweger (Roxanne ‘Roxie’ Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly), Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), Queen Latifah (Matron ‘Mama’ Morton), John C Reilly (Amos Hart), Lucy Liu (Kitty Baxter), Christine Baranski (Mary Sunshine), and Dominic West (Fred Casely)
Director: Rob Marshall
The trouble with musicals is that I tend to remember the costume and music long after it is over rather than the story. Chicago may just be remembered for its BDSM-tinged softcore dance number in Cell Block Tango, Renée Zellweger’s Roxie Hart impersonating a kitten in heat as she purrs through Roxie, or Queen Latifah’s brassy rendition of the joyously dirty When You’re Good to Mama.
Loosely based on a real incident that happened in 1924, Chicago tells the story of Roxanne ‘Roxie’ Hart, a bored housewife who obsesses about being a stage star like her idol Velma Kelly. When the man she is having an affair with, Fred Casely, turns out to be a fake (he promised her that with his connections, he’d make her a star – but he never had these connections), she ends up shooting the man dead. Never mind – her dim-witted husband Amos is more than willing to take the blame. All she has to do, in a hilarious sequence of her imagining herself dancing and singing out her story, is to convince her husband that the man who died was a scum taking advantage of her. But the truth comes out, and next thing poor Roxie knows, she’s thrown into the Murderers Row in Cook County Jail. How nice that Velma, after killing her husband and his lover (her sister), is living it large there too.
Billy Flynn is the lawyer who knows how it is done. He will spin a media circus, playing on the public’s hunger for melodrama to manipulate the justice system and acquit the guilty or innocent (he doesn’t care) for a mere five thousand dollars. His media circus soon intoxicates Roxie so much that she’d rather rot in jail and bask in the superstardom than to be released.
The main stars of Chicago is the atmospheric setting. The mood and the set are reminiscent of the romanticized depiction of the brassy, dramatic 1930s America. The music is always fine, or what they manage to fit in here anyway. Catherine Zeta-Jones is perfect as Velma and she carries her parts in the musical very well. Renée Zellweger is playing yet another ingénue, but she manages to convey very well the guile and lazy cunning underneath Roxie’s blonde dimbulb facade. Vocally, she’s weaker than Catherine Zeta-Jones, but she can purr and pout her way through fine.
The men are… well, I don’t know. Billy Flynn is okay, but this is not his movie, and for goodness sake, Richard Gere needs to keep his shirt on! John C Reilly is pretty okay as the dork, but it is the ladies who carry this show on their slender shoulders and they do that so well. Queen Latifah is underused, but her solo is one of the best in this movie. Even Christine Baransky’s reporter has more of a charisma in one scene compared to the entire Billy Flynn scenes.
The songs are fabulous – check out Cell Block Tango – and the movie is a feast on the eyes. But ultimately, Chicago is also a soft-hitting movie. The public’s obsession with celebrity criminals are treated in a way here that will break no new grounds, not when we have witnessed far more cutting examples this movie weakly satirizes in the recent years (OJ Simpson, this is your life). By portraying women as simplistic creatures who commit crimes solely out of passion while men are liars and cheaters, this movie ultimately dumbs down itself. It’s a fine musical worth watching for the music and the gorgeous costumes, but its own wishy-washy indecision about how far it should go to satirize society prevents it from reaching loftier heights of genius.