2002, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Taye Diggs.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 3, 2003

The movie musical was never quite dead, just sort of a slumbering beast for the past three decades, waking in spurts to erratic effect. Late-century attempts ranged from the good to the bad to the sweetly strange (the underrated Newsies, Xanadu, and Dancer in the Dark, in that order) but none could recall the Fifties and Sixties heyday of the movie musical, those extravagant Technicolor, pomp, and pancake make-up parades. Chicago doesn't either, exactly – it's too fierce and lean to warrant much comparison to the sing-song shiny-happy of a Rodgers & Hammerstein. No, this one doesn't so much recall the glory days of movie musicals as give it a new, era-specific reason to wake up and shake its tail feather. Chicago is a ruthlessly cynical work, which makes a lot more sense to contemporary audiences than a couple of cowpokes cooing about a surrey with a fringe on top. Though the musical premiered on Broadway in 1975 and is set in the 1920s, Chicago's skewering of the cult of celebrity isn't exactly a dated topic. Nor is its twin theme of vengeance (that one's been relevant for at least as long as the 1700s, right about the time William Congreve was waxing poetic about hell, fury, and a woman scorned). Here, there are two women scorned – Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), by a cheating husband, and Roxie Hart (Zellweger), by a crooked lover. The penalty for both wayward men is a bullet to the heart; the penalty for both women is jail stay and maybe death row. That's where the similarities end, though. Velma's a nightclub sensation, a star; Roxie just dreams of being one. (First-time director Rob Marshall cleverly uses Roxie's imagination as the entry point into each musical number – in theory, they're all in her head – a tack that eliminates the inherent awkwardness of the musical genre.) Roxie's a bit of a ditz, but she's also ambitious, scheming her way into the papers and ultimately fighting tooth-and-nail with Velma over top-dog murderess rights. Caught in between is the celebrity lawyer to both, Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere. Gere isn't the obvious choice for the role – none of the leads are, having previously kept mum about their considerable singing and dancing talents – but his type certainly is. Flynn is a parody of the kind of roles on which Gere has built his career, cocksure and just shy of smarmy. Gere is the least interesting element of Chicago (though, to his credit, he has two top-notch numbers: a breathless tap dance sequence, ”Razzle Dazzle,” and the manic “We Both Reached for the Gun,” in which Billy operates Roxie like a ventriloquist's doll). Still, if Gere plays a little blandly, the two femmes fatales make up for him in spades. Zellweger is her usual squinty-eyed charmer self, but with an appealingly nasty edge, and Zeta-Jones, quite simply, is a knockout. She's downright scary in the film's delirious high, “Cell Block Tango,” in which the women on murderess row 'fess up to their crimes. Nothing in her career has prepared audiences for this smoky, slithering, stomping bitch, and God save the man who finds himself on the wrong end of her stiletto heel. The rest of the cast is just as dazzling, most notably Queen Latifah as Mamma, the sassy prison warden, and John C. Reilly as Roxie's cuckolded husband. In a film so acidic, so pessimistic, Reilly manages to wrench a moment of genuine sincerity in his doleful number, “Mr. Cellophane.” Just a moment, mind you – short but sweet – then we're right back to the film's kicky, giddy, chargrilled heart. Delicious.

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