Movie lovers seldom expect Richard Gere to look like he’s having a jolly good time in a movie, much less a musical. But manifestly he’s having the time of his life in Chicago and he’s its biggest surprise. When he arrives, we’re more than a little happy to see him; he gets us out of John Myhre’s blackened jailhouse ambiance and provides a grinning MC razzmatazz. Though informed he does his own singing and tap dancing, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t—he’s ingratiating simply because no one else is; he’s the thin blanket to fight off the chill. And there’s definitely something frosty at the center of director Rob Marshall’s post-Sweet Charity/Cabaret concept—an ample lack of audience empathy for Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Laudably hard-working as these two troupers are, no one could mistake them as lovesome. Much of the disconnect has to do with Martin Walsh’s vertigo editing being successively razor-sharp, never giving us much of a chance to indulge these killer dillers. Broadway great Patti Lupone speaks for many: “I got dizzy... nauseous.” We don’t even get to absorb Marshall’s own choreography: the velocity of the editing takes away the pleasures of dance in a number like “Cell Block Tango,” and also interferes with his clever implementations, particularly with the Marionette “We Both Reached for the Gun,” in which we aren’t permitted to enjoy a fuller view of the waggish theatricality. During “Cell Block Tango,” Zeta-Jones’s alarming callousness, at its stomping zenith when she’s braying the lyrics “He Had It Coming,” reinforces the chilliness, which would otherwise guarantee the hangman’s noose. (Bits fleet by cautioning her bipolarity is close to flaring.) If a musical is absent heart, it would likely indicate bloodlessness and clearly Chicago substitutes with adrenaline. Marshall’s synthetics block the audience from receiving embraceable satisfaction; by design he’s wrapped his hyperbole in cellophane. (We later experience variations of this in Nine and Into the Woods.) Has to be why Zellweger and not, say, Reese Witherspoon, is cast as Roxie Hart: in a cheap moll’s whine, she screams estrangement; when she sings “Roxie Hart” against the mirrors, she’s a scrawny, remote Marilyn Monroe doing a repellent Barbara Loden. Interviewed in “The Making of Chicago,” Marshall tells us he’s directing a satire on the currency of the celebration of criminality—all flash and trash, with a huge booty at the end for getting away with murder. He’s closer to having engineered a sociopathic burlesque. Gere’s raffish dubiety in watching Zeta-Jones and Zellweger achieve unredemptive adulation helps resolve our inability to break through Marshall’s thick prophylactics. We don’t want to fuck these broads, we want to ice them.

Academy Awards: Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER (Revised 4/2018) All Rights Reserved.