As much as I’ve enjoyed the films I’ve reviewed recently, they have all admittedly been, for lack of a less crude expression, sausage-fests. I can count on one hand the number of named female characters I’ve come across in recent viewing, and I won’t deny it was a nice change to watch a film where the x chromosome was well-represented. Rob Marshall’s ‘Chicago’ is a sizzling, sexy, stylish but probably totally overrated cinematic treat. People often disregard this though, too fixated on ogling those nifty little sequin outfits that leave just under enough to the imagination.
In case you were unaware, ‘Chicago’ is a musical about fame, murder and jazz…quite a seductive combo. It’s protagonist (if you permit my loose usage of that word) is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), who desires nothing more than to be on stage, and more to the point, famous. One night, after a session of adulterous coitus with lover Fred, who apparently has links in showbiz, he reveals that actually he has been lying in order to, I quote, ‘get a piece of this’ before giving her ass one last demeaning tap and throwing her across the room. Unfortunately, his biggest-douchebag-on-earth-award is to be accepted posthumously, as in one of the most satisfying movie gun-killings since ‘Thelma and Louise’, Roxie blasts him full of lead in a fit of rage. Her doting, dim-witted and long, long suffering husband Amos has had it up to here with her antics and bails on covering for her, resulting in Roxie going to prison. Among her murderess cellmates is Queen of jazz cabaret Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), her once idol but soon to be fame-rival. For you see, in Chicago, homicide is a spectacle and the courtroom is a circus. Ringmaster of this particular circus is hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Roxie’s ticket to both getting her off the hook and getting her name on the front page. The latter is by far her main priority.
In terms of plot, that’s about it. Nothing of didactic substance could be squeezed out even if Marshall wanted there to be. But let’s face it, no one goes to see ‘Chicago’ -on stage or screen- for didactic substance anymore than they go to strip clubs to admire the lighting. It’s the songs and music that make this film, and they are incredible. So incredible, they dazzled the academy to handing over the most prestigious award given at the Oscars.
Before I start ripping into this film’s best picture Oscar as a joke (which it is) , I should give credit where it’s deserved. I have to say the film’s execution of the musical sequences is pretty brilliant. Rather than have everyone burst into song spontaneously, like in ‘Oliver!’ or ‘The Sound of Music’, Marshall literally stages each number, each character getting a chance to have their moment and own personal set, while inter-cutting between the normal dialogue. The affect is original and well-fitting with the tone, as by giving each song such separate emphasis, the viewer is too captivated by the musical parts to give much of a care about thin plot. All the actors are very good excluding one (I’ll get to that in a moment). Catherine Zeta-Jones tends to steal the show for most people but my favourites are the supporting characters, namely Queen Latifah as Mama Morton, the nicest jail warden you’ll ever meet provided you slip her plenty of fifties, and John C Reilly as Amos, whose wonderful ‘Mr Cellophane’, contradictory to the song’s lyrics, is one of the most memorable numbers of the film (I think).
Furthermore, ‘Chicago’ actually did accomplish something notable. Here’s a challenge: name one prolific musical film that came out in the 80’s or 90’s (excluding Disney flicks). The best I can come up with is probably ‘South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut’. In short, at this point the musical genre was as dead as fried chicken. If ‘Moulin Rouge’ managed to heal it, then ‘Chicago’ resurrected it for good. Over the last decade, musical films have enjoyed great success, and although this means we’ve had to endure a few suckers (‘Burlesque’, ‘Nine’), and some that think they’re a lot better than they are (‘Les Miserables’…Yeah. I went there.) It’s for a good part been a triumphant comeback.
Glad that’s over with, now on with the fun part.
The not-so-good aspects…
Richard Gere. Let’s talk about Richard Gere. It’s not the worst casting choice Hollywood ever made but it’s in the top twenty I reckon. Do I need to state the obvious that he’s really not a singer? Because he’s not…that’s really all one can say. More than that though is that he doesn’t quite fit the buoyant, playful tone of the film. I’ve got nothing against Richard Gere but the best way I can describe him is a well-dressed cardboard cut-out, and really that’s the only parts he can play really well. Case-in-point the millionaire in ‘Pretty Woman’, which was a great role for him. Billy Flynn is sleazy, slick and arrogant and frankly Gere is too nice (in the blandest sense of the word) to play him.
My main issue with this film winning best picture however is more to do with the other films that were nominated. I’ve not seen ‘Gangs of New York’ but have seen ‘The Pianist’, ‘The Hours’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ and would definitely rank the former two at least above ‘Chicago’, especially ‘The Pianist’. One of the basic requirements of a best picture film is that it should change something – be it the scope of cinema or something intimate in the audience’s viewpoint. ‘Chicago’ doesn’t really do either of these things. It’s fabulous to look at and good fun, that’s as far as it goes. ‘The Pianist’ was Roman Polanski’s harrowing and deeply personal testament to the horrors of what his people endured in world war 2 and leaves one, at the very least, deeply moved if not devastated and changed. Seems a given what film deserved the award.
In fairness, Polanski did at least receive best director which frankly, I’m beginning to view as the more meaningful award. Not to say that the best picture award is not meaningful. It is, but in a different way. It reflects what film people chose to define a year for them. Regarding ‘Chicago’ winning, consider this: in 2002 the wounds from 9/11 were still extremely raw and the media had never been pumping its readers/watchers full of more fear. ‘The Pianist’ and ‘The Hours’ may be finer films but one was about the holocaust and the other features suicide as a prevalent theme. Maybe people had just had enough of doom and gloom and ‘Chicago’ was the shallow, glitzy escape they needed. The choice for best picture in this case, is very forgivable.
(And if I’m 100% honest, that phenomenal ‘Cell Block Tango’ sequence could have bought my forgiveness no matter how shit the rest of the film was).
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