A Mumbai teen, who grew up in the slums, becomes a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" He is arrested under suspicion of cheating, and while being interrogated, events from his life history are shown which explain why he knows the answers.
Murderesses Velma Kelly (a chanteuse and tease who killed her husband and sister after finding them in bed together) and Roxie Hart (who killed her boyfriend when she discovered he wasn't going to make her a star) find themselves on death row together and fight for the fame that will keep them from the gallows in 1920s Chicago. Written by
Fictional characters, as a whole, get away with more than is permissible in reality. They do things we would never condone in our peers, yet still manage to elicit our sympathy. Maybe it's a form of catharsis--instead of inflicting violence on other people, we watch someone onscreen do so and cheer them on. Such is the case with "Chicago"--the film features a large rogue's gallery of criminals, con men, and crooks, yet most of these are surprisingly likeable. And yet, the urge to root for the bad guys is somewhat unsettling, for "Chicago" is a story about people beating the rap by manipulating the public, illiciting their sympathy and playing on their deep-seated need for the bizarre and bloody.
Told one way, the story of "Chicago" sounds like a showbusiness drama: a young girl dreams of stardom. She is initailly naive but learns quickly, rising into the blaze of limelight while an older, more experienced rival resents the new face that's stealing the show. The twist is that the art is murder, and the stage is comprised of the papers, the radio, the courthouse, and the all-devouring public eye. The veteran is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a nightclub singer who did in her husband and sister after finding them in what is usually called "a compromising position." The newcomer is Roxie Hart (Renee Zelweiger), a cutie-pie who shot her lover after finding out he was using her, and who expects her husband Amos (John C. Reilly, excellent as the quintessentail doormat) to stand by her afterwards. Both women are represented by Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who brags he can beat any rap for the right price and is probably what Shakespeare had in mind when he made that crack about killing all the lawyers. Flynn's formula is simple: turn the client into a media darling, spin a tragic tale of the good girl ruined by bad choices, and an aquittal is certain.
"Chicago" is a musical, and the film uses a gimmick of establishing two worlds: the real Chicago and a surreal fantasy world in the form of a Jazz-Age theater, where the song and dance takes place. In many musicals this wouldn't work, but here it makes sense. Director Rob Marshall fuses the two worlds together very well, creating images that compliment each other effectively. Some of the concepts look like things you'd see in an editorial cartoon: a press conference becomes a ventroliquist act and puppet show, a trial is depicted as a literal circus. Others offer a reflection of the character's inner self: Amos, in the guise of a baggy-pants comic, bemoans the fact that, like all second banannas, nobody really notices him--even the fantasy audience seems indifferent to his performance (which is, in truth, wonderful).
The ensemble all turns in excellent performances in the acting category, but the singing is more uneven. Zeta-Jones has by far the best voice of the leads, as exemplified by the casually sensual "All That Jazz." Zelweiger is passable, mostly because one gets the impression that her Roxie has more charm and determination than actual talent. Gere only barely manages with the music, and does so mainly on the grounds that Billy Flynn isn't one of the more vocally difficult roles in the music theater cannon. But what he lacks in pipes he makes up for in the character department: his Flynn is a perfectly charismatic scoundrel, one whose talent and danger is in his ability to be so charming. Taye Diggs, who presides over the dream world as the Bandleader, doesn't get to sing, which is a shame because he can--he was in the original cast of "Rent"--but works very well with what he's given.
The mix of glitter and grime in "Chicago" is reminicent of last year's "Moulin Rouge," but those who thought the latter too excessive will probably find this one more appealing. Any fan of music theater, however, will not want to miss this film--it may just be the rebirth of the movie musical we've been hearing about.
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