Saturday, June 29, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (I Guess...): Chicago

My Across the Universe review should have sent the message that liking a movie and thinking that it works are two different things.  While I feel that Across the Universe had significant weaknesses, I have affection for it.  By contrast, I think that Chicago (2002) executes very well... but it leaves me cold.

It's not that I hate it.  Chicago is highly entertaining, filled with energy that rarely flags.  But there is nothing for me to hang my hat on: no one to root for and no appealing message.

Yet my view is clearly in the minority, as Chicago is both a commercial and critical darling.  Commercially, Chicago is second only to Grease at the box office, with more than $170 million.  Critically, it boasts a Certified Fresh rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.

It's easy to see why audiences would take to it, with its blend of energy and spectacle, but what's more interesting is why critics -- a notoriously difficult bunch -- seem to like it.  Energy and spectacle are cited, but other reasons seem to pop up repeatedly.  One is that Chicago is cynical, highlighting the corruption of a bygone era the way court TV exposes (or promotes) corruption in today's society.  The other is that Chicago isn't like other musicals.  Where other musicals feature the characters "breaking reality" to sing a song, the movie version of Chicago does not require any uncomfortable suspension of disbelief.  Instead, most of the musical numbers are figments of Roxie's imagination, with the real activity taking place alongside it.

So it would appear that one of Chicago's major selling points is that it is Not A Musical.  Musicals are almost cloyingly romantic, featuring characters who regularly shift between talking and singing, walking and dancing.  Musicals require major suspension of disbelief.  Whereas Chicago never forces musical haters out of their comfort zone.  The musical is only in Roxie's mind, see?  Moreover, Chicago's cynical tone lets critics feel as if they're smarter than everyone else, and that's always a winner.

So what is Chicago about?  It is set during the 1920 Jazz Age period and begins in the steamy world of Chicago night clubs.  Roxie Hart, a chorus girl with a schlub of a husband named Amos, dreams of being a star of the vaudeville stage like the Kelly sisters.  Little does she realize that Velma Kelly is about to be arrested for murdering her sister after finding her with Velma's husband.  Roxie quickly has problems of her own after she kills her lover upon learning that he lied about having connections to big club owners.  While Roxie awaits her murder trial, she is locked in an all-female cell block overseen by "Mama" Morton.  Mama informs Roxie that the way to a "Not Guilty" verdict is to hire Billy Flynn, criminal defense attorney and bullshitter extraordinaire.  Flynn has been helping Velma -- also an inmate in the cell block -- and quickly fabricates a backstory for Roxie designed to gain media sympathy.  It works, and Roxie is soon a celebrity.  She incurs Velma's wrath, as Velma sees her own celebrity fading by comparison.

I should note that the synopsis above is of the movie only, not the stage musical on which it is based.  This is another case where I have never had the opportunity to watch the stage version, which differs significantly.

The Good

1.  Production Values.  Chicago is a good-looking movie, filled with reds, blues, and blacks.  It shifts seamlessly between "reality" and the festive sequences in Roxie's mind.  Two of the standout numbers, "Cell Block Tango" and "We Both Reached For the Gun" are imaginatively staged, even if director Rob Marshall is a little too fond of close-ups during large group sings.  


2.  It Is Well Paced.  That's not a small thing, especially in a musical.  Even Les Miserables has its draggy moments.  With Chicago, there is no dragging -- quiet moments seem intended to provide a breather before another big number.  Maybe "Mister Cellophane" is a little slow, but it is also poignant, and serves to underscore how out of step Amos is with the madcap world around him.

3.  Energetic Performances.  Despite the fact that I don't really care about or identify with the characters or the actors who play them, I still found them worth watching.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is the biggest standout, snarling and strutting her way through numbers such as the excellent "All That Jazz."  Renee Zellweger does reasonably well in a role that would be played by Amy Adams if it were cast a few years ago.  Her playing Roxie, just like her role in Nurse Betty, seemed to be an attempt to dispose of the "girl next door" label she received after Jerry Maguire.  In Chicago, the image of a sweet, innocent girl works in her favor, as it allows the gullible press to believe her tales.

As for Richard Gere, I've never been ga-ga over him like so many others, but he does a good job as a boyish, lighthearted huckster.  Queen Latifah is Queen Latifah: jaded and wiser than everyone around her.  And honorary mention to Christine Baranski for doing the gushing, shallow reporter thing so very well.  Everyone is in good voice, though Autotune may deserve some credit.           

The Bad

1.  Really, Guys?  I know the legal profession and the justice system deserve some derision, but... seriously?  Chicago is a smart movie that thinks it's smarter than it really is.  Its greatest failing is that it thinks the average person is very stupid.  And people would have to be pretty damn stupid to fall for Billy Flynn's transparent shenanigans.  I realize that there was no Internet in those days, but surely the press employed one fact checker among them?  Even if they didn't, the level of bullshit he shovels in the courtroom should have caught the suspicion of one juror and certainly the judge.  Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but in real life, I just don't think the court would be so daft.  But never mind reality!  Chicago is trying to portray a stupid, corrupt world where 99 percent of people are suckers, easy prey for the few smart people.  Was the original screenplay written by Ayn Rand?  

2.  I Don't Care.  It's rare when I can't find anyone to identify with in a movie.  Yet there's no one here that I sympathize with, other than maybe Amos.  Roxie is amoral and pretty horrible.  We can sympathize with Velma's reasons for murdering her husband and sister, but she's pretty horrible as well.  Billy Flynn is a slime ball, and Mary Sunshine shallow and idiotic.  Of the main characters, Mama is probably the most likable, with her savvy ways and (feigned?) warmth, but she has nothing resembling a character arc.  If you don't care about the characters, you can't really care about their outcomes... or at least I can't.
3.  It Is Cold.  That is really my biggest complaint.  The production values are great, the performances good enough, but the end leaves me empty.  What are we supposed to take from Chicago?  The world is a cynical place, and only those jaded enough to lie shamelessly will triumph?  Whereas decent people like Amos, or the poor acrobat who was innocent of murder, will be left in the cold?  Hooray?  It's hard to get excited about Chicago's message, which boils down to: the media has always been horrible and shameless, so we should just roll with it.


Maybe Chicago just cares about entertaining its audience, not about inspiring reform.  If people come away from it wanting to reform our shallow gossipy press, that is just a bonus.  At the same time, a movie with such low aspirations risks becoming instantly forgettable.  While Chicago is not a forgettable movie, it doesn't get inside me the way other, more imperfect musicals have.  I don't have a scene or a song that is emblazoned in my memory as the perfect expression of something I've thought or felt.  Then again, it's a little unfair to expect all musicals to be heart-soaring and soul-baring -- just as it's unfair to rip apart any musical that is not as cynical and sharp-tongued and pleased with itself as Chicago.  There is room in the musical universe for a movie like Chicago.  It just won't be something I feel compelled to watch multiple times.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right:  Dreamgirls, Les Miserables

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong:  The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENTAcross the Universe 

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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