Ever since she landed in Hollywood a couple years back, the Welsh-born actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has been playing the part of an old-fashioned star with a vengeance. She made a splash in silly (but lucrative) entertainments like "The Mask of Zorro" and "Entrapment" in which she confidently flaunted her lush physicality, only to turn around and flex her acting chops with a supporting role in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic." Few moments in that film were as shocking as the image of the then-hugely pregnant actress seated behind the wheel of a luxury SUV screaming obscenities into a cell phone at her personal contract killer. Here was a star who really acted like one.
In "Chicago," Rob Marshall's film version of the 1975 musical first staged by Bob Fosse, Zeta-Jones plays a different kind of beautiful monster, Velma Kelley, a former habitue of the Chicago stage now appearing in prison. The time is 1929, a time of bootleggers and Tommy guns, and Velma has, as they used to say, done her man wrong. (Her sister, too, whom she discovered en flagrante with the deceased.) As far as Velma and her lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), are concerned, however, jail is just another public relations opportunity. On stage, the showgirl had to share the limelight with her sister, but whether she's putting in face time with Billy at the courtroom or granting interviews from behind bars, Velma now receives top billing. She's a Chicago star, like Al Capone.
A star on the fade, alas. Velma isn't really the main attraction in this iteration of the musical, which centers far more on the trials of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a would-be chorine who shoots her lover (Dominic West) and begs her husband (John C. Reilly) to take the rap. He does and then he doesn't, which is how Roxie lands on the same prison block with her vaudeville idol, Velma. Aided by Matron Mama Morton (an underused Queen Latifah), Roxie follows Velma's lead, hires Billy Flynn and with his assistance transforms into Chicago's newest tabloid sensation. As far as Roxie is concerned, murderesses row isn't much different from tryouts in the sticks. If you're not killed, you may hit the big time.
Fosse based his 1975 musical on the Maurine Dallas Watkins play, which in turn took its inspiration from cases she'd covered as a journalist while working at the Chicago Tribune. (Frank Urson directed one film version in the 1920s and nearly two decades later Nunnally Johnson wrote another, "Roxie Hart.") Fosse's "Chicago," which he created with John Kander and Fred Ebb, is often marked for its darkly cynical attitude toward the media and celebrity, a cynicism which holds true only for those who have never seen plays like "The Front Page" or films like "A Face in the Crowd." A quarter of a century later, Fosse's ostensible cynicism, at least as interpreted by Marshall, who also did the choreography for the film, seems quaintly earnest. Denuded of satire, the musical now comes across as another charming if creaky theatrical contrivance.
For musical lovers, this likely won't matter. There isn't much Fosse in evidence in this "Chicago," which means there's little raunch and next to no heat, and Marshall has an exasperatingly impatient filmmaking style. Like Baz Luhrmann in the superior "Moulin Rouge," he simply refuses to sit still. Instead of letting his performers just do their own thing, he chops up their bodies like some lunatic cubist then frantically tosses the pieces around. There's a reason why, when Fred Astaire started in movies, he insisted that the cinematographer film his entire body; he wanted us to see what he was doing. None of Marshall's three leads is truly up to the demands of either the choreography or Kander and Ebb's sly vaudeville pastiche, but it's maddening that for most of their numbers, you're not allowed to fully watch them try.
Energetic and eager to please, the three stars nonetheless appear to be having a good time, with Gere, in particular, taking obvious pleasure in his role as a press corps puppeteer. His matinee looks stand up better to the film's grubby cinematography, as well, which turns shadows into murky puddles and tends to be hard on Zellweger, especially in close-up. It takes Zellweger some time to warm up, although she finally does, but it's Zeta-Jones who keeps you watching from start to finish. Whether bouncing into a split during "All That Jazz" or vamping through "I Simply Cannot Do It Alone," she refuses to let you go. You'd have to go back to Joan Crawford in her hungry prime, in films like "Rain" and "The Women," to find another female film star who grabs hold of the screen with such ferocity. If musicals are dreams, she is their greatest dreamer.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements.
Times guidelines: Some (not enough) suggestive dancing and songs. Nobody is remotely sorry for his or her bad behavior.
Renee Zellweger...Roxie Hart
Catherine Zeta-Jones...Velma Kelley
Richard Gere...Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah...Matron Mama Morton
John C. Reilly...Amos Hart
Miramax Films presents in association with Producer Circle Co. a Zadan/Meron Production, a film by Rob Marshall, released by Miramax Films. Director Rob Marshall. Screenwriter Bill Condon. Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins and the musical play "Chicago," directed and choreographed for the stage by Bob Fosse. Producer Martin Richards. Music John Kander. Lyrics Fred Ebb. Director of photography Dion Beebe. Production designer John Myhre. Editor Martin Walsh. Costume designer Colleen Atwood. Choreography Rob Marshall. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
In general release.