from Film Forum, 01/09/03
Chicago, the popular Broadway show, is now a flash-and-glitter big screen show starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, and John C. Reilly. It's being heralded as the return of the old-fashioned movie musical. (Last year's thrilling Moulin Rouge was hardly old-fashioned.) Set in the 1920s, jazz club scene, it explores America's obsession with immoral celebrities, gossip, and the way that money gets in the way of justice.
Roxie (Zellweger) is a young blonde amateur with a lust for the spotlight. She idolizes Velma (Zeta-Jones), a dancing singing superstar. When both end up in jail for violent crimes, a clever and dirty lawyer (Gere) begins manipulating them, using the press to glamorize them and to whitewash their crime stories. Viewers will undoubtedly think of recent celebrity trials. Against all odds, the lawyer proves that a big show can hide an obvious lie, and that the American public is happy to let people get away with murder as long as they are treated to a spectacularly sordid drama of headlines.
Director Rob Marshall (TV's Cinderella) and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) make this an energetic ride that perfectly blends stage-show dance numbers with images that could only happen on the screen. The leads provide a big, bold, enthusiastic performances.
Nevertheless, while Chicago is clearly intended as a satire of our scandal-hungry culture, the whole production seems reluctant to suggest that there is anything really wrong with the behavior of the characters. The willful depravity of these losers is celebrated and treated far too lightly. The one halfway noble person in the bunch is abused, manipulated, scoffed at, and ignored: Roxie's simple-minded, compassionate husband (John C. Reilly) calls himself "Mr. Cellophane" because people look right through him. Instead of leaving us in admiration of his compassion, the film tramples him and leaves him in its dust. This is as dark and cynical as comedies get. While all of this mirrors unpleasant realities—it is easy to see parallels going on in the news even now—I found that the film has a tone that suggests this is just the way life is, and we may as well enjoy the ride. No thank you.
Amanda Caldwell (The Film Forum) is also troubled by the film. "Chicago confuses our sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and then it goes even further. The crowd is there precisely because she's a scandal, and they applaud and pay her, thereby endorsing her crime, indirectly. We, too, paid money to see a show about a murderess, and we're enjoying the whole song and dance. It's hard to know what to make of this, whether we're supposed to be disgusted with ourselves … [or] give in gladly (or resignedly or thoughtfully) to the sensationalistic bent of human nature."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "This may not be the cast that would immediately jump to one's mind when thinking musical theater but thanks to some judicious editing they are surprisingly effective. This is not a musical like My Fair Lady or Singin' in the Rain. It is highly sexual and sensual, featuring elements which speak to the baser instincts of man: greed, lust, backbiting, and of course, fame."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "The story was depressing and sort of a sad commentary on women. Save your money and your time. There are too many other good movies to go see." Lisa A. Rice (Movieguide) says, "The biggest problem … is its worldview." Likewise, Bob Nusser (Preview) says, "The film has a naughty tone and a casual attitude toward adultery, sex and morals in general."
Mainstream critics are heralding the film as one of the year's best, and many are predicting it will become the front-runner for the year's Best Picture Oscar. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The movie doesn't update the musical so much as bring it to a high electric streamlined gloss. Marshall … paces the film with gusto. It's not all breakneck production numbers, but it's never far from one. There are a few moments of straight pathos … but for the most part the film runs on solid-gold cynicism. The movie is big, brassy fun."from Film Forum, 01/30/03
In spite of the wave of critical acclaim for Rob Marshall's big screen version of the musical Chicago, religious press critics continue to express grave misgivings about the film. Emily Snyder and Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) sum up the film: "In Chicago, the guilty live happily ever after, the innocent are neither rewarded nor even admired, and no one sits in judgment of the whole rotten system, while the audience is expected to leave not shaken and challenged but humming 'All That Jazz.' Chicago is cynical to the core." Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) also turns in a review: "Chicago succeeds in making iniquity look cool. Nobody learns any lasting lessons in this film, save, perhaps, for Zellweger's long-suffering husband who learns that being a decent, loyal spouse makes him a chump." David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) is the only religious press reviewer thus far to post a rave review of Chicago.