About as deep as a puddle.

Released in 2002, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 20 Jan 2003 by Drew Tavendale
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Prohibition-era Chicago. Guns. Booze. Murders. Enter Al Capone... Wait a minute. Al Capone's not in this? Surely something's wrong? No? Oh well. Apparently Mr. Capone wasn't the only thing big in Chicago in the '20s. Something else captured the imagination of its inhabitants - jazz. But we're not talking about John Coltrane here - this is the world of Vaudeville.

This is the third screen adaptation of Maurine Dallas Watkin's play (one of which, starring one of the biggest musical stars of the time, Ginger Rogers, wasn't a musical), though it owes more to Bob Fosse's 1970s stage musical than the original. That Chicago would make it again to the silver screen, after it's resurgence on the West-End and Broadway stages, was inevitable, though it has been in the pipeline for more than a quarter of a century. Although undoubtedly helped by the renewed interest in musicals generated by Baz Luhrmann's award-winning Moulin Rouge, Chicago succeeds on its own merits - excellent songs, lavish production and a strong cast all add up to a very fun movie. The most important part, the songs, were already in place from the stage version, so the most vital thing for director Rob Marshall to get right was the cast.

And get it right he has. Though at first glance, looking down the cast list, the prospects are potentially worrying, they all acquit themselves well, and some with genuine aplomb.

First up is Catherine Zeta Jones, the only cast member whose ability to carry this kind of project was in no doubt whatsoever. Jones has a strong musical pedigree, having starred in British stage versions of Annie, Bugsy Malone and The Pajama Game, before taking the lead role in 42nd Street at the tender age of 15, and if anything she has improved with age.

Zeta Jones plays Velma Kelly, one of the biggest of Chicago's most popular Vaudeville stars, who, as the movie opens, has recently ended her dancing partnership with her sister, who was doing a dance of another kind with Velma's husband. Velma appears at the theatre, and we launch into the first musical number, the well known 'And All That Jazz'. Her voice is wonderful, and her dancing and performance wonderfully exuberant. She has an electrifying and energetic screen presence and the only disappointing thing is that we don't see more of her in the movie.

It is the other cast members who provide some doubt, most notably the other two main characters, lawyer Billy Flynn and Jazz-Star wannabe Roxie Hart, played by Richard Gere and Renée Zellwegger respectively.

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This reviewer had to force himself to be as objective as possible about Gere's performance, as to say I hate Richard Gere is to waste a perfect opportunity to use the word 'loathe'. But objective I was, and pleasantly surprised to find that Gere was a very capable singer, and extremely fitting in the role of the suave lawyer. Undoubtedly the weakest, vocally, of the leads, the man can still hold a tune. Though he seems a little flat in his first number, this quickly improves, and he is wonderful, alongside Zellwegger, in what is easily the most enjoyable scene of the film, an inspired sequence where Flynn plays the ventriloquist and Roxie his dummy.

And so to Roxie. Though Zellwegger, as one of my esteemed colleagues so poetically put it, "has a face you would never tire of slapping", she does have an excellent voice, and performs her numbers with genuine relish. However, after putting on weight for her role in Bridget Jones's Diary, she seems to have gone too far the other way, and rather than the sexy, vivacious Roxie the role demands, she looks ill - thin, bordering on the anorexic. Still, it is the songs that matter, and for these she gets full marks, though it is a real pity that she cannot translate this into her spoken scenes. She fails to imbue her character with any real sympathy, so that when she is arrested and taken to prison, it is difficult for the audience to believe that the inmates and warden act nicely towards her because they feel sorry for her. Without this vulnerability and sympathy, Roxie is left as an unlikeable character - stupid and naive (though she does come up with a couple of good scams), with no redeeming features.

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There is a very strong supporting cast, foremost among whom is John C. Reilly, one of the best supporting actors around today, who garners real sympathy from the audience as Roxie's put-upon husband, Amos. Reilly also makes one of the best songs in the film, 'Mr. Cellophane', his own, bringing some genuine pathos to the role, and he provides the only real conscience of the movie - everyone else is looking out for number one, but this poor man doesn't care about himself, only his wife. Others who impress include Queen Latifah, as prison matron Mama Morton, Christine Baranski as reporter Mary Sunshine, and the, unfortunately, under-utilised Taye Diggs as the bandleader. There is even a cameo appearance from Lucy Liu, though it does seem rather pointless.

Story-wise, this film is about as shallow as you get, but Chicago is proud of this. Indeed, it seems to wear its shallowness like a badge of honour, and it is refreshing to watch a movie that is about pure enjoyment, with no hidden meanings. Such story as there is revolves around Roxie's trial and her antipathy towards Velma Kelly, with the main themes being the fickle nature of fame, the short attention span of America's public and media, and a corrupt legal system where money (or fame) talks, and justice apparently took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

There seems little point in translating Chicago for the big screen, other than to reach a wider audience, but this is a justifiable reason in itself, and it's translation to this medium has allowed a few visual moments simply not possible in the theatre. These include use of montage, and instantaneous switching from the 'real' world to the fantasy world inside Roxie's head. Another nice touch to look out for is the newsreel footage surrounding Roxie's rising fame.

Marshall has centred his film on Roxie's story, which wouldn't have been a problem if he had found a more appealing heroine, but you find yourself longing for more of Zeta Jones, and less of Bridget Jones. Still, it is an extremely entertaining film, and well worth seeing.

If anyone were going to listen to me, I'd give this film 4 out of a possible 5 Combined Goodness Units.

Rob Marshall
Cast list:
Catherine Zeta Jones(Velma Kelly)
Renée Zellwegger(Roxie Hart)
Richard Gere(Billy Flynn)