Destined for Success

I headed to the local theater, meaning to see Adaptation, but unexpected traffic and lines foiled my last-second attempt, so I ran down the list of films and took in a different adaptation, Chicago. I guess I'm just flexible that way.

There'll be few out there who don't at least know about this much trumpeted stage musical, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who hasn't sat through it before. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to matter - the story is self-contained, and I never found myself bewildered over any oblique references.

We open on Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) going on stage for her last performance before being arrested for a double homicide. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) looks on and dreams that she could be onstage. Then she goes home with her boyfriend in tow, who's been promising to use his contacts to get her career started. Before Roxie's husband comes home, they make love and afterwards this schmoe says she has no talent, he had no contacts anyway, and by the way he's breaking up with her. They argue, he gets abusive, she pulls a gun from the dresser, and pretty soon she's in jail for murder as well.

The remainder of the film involves Roxie meeting Velma in jail, as well as Mama (Queen Latifah) the woman in charge of Murderer's row, plus working through her defense with lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) who generates a flurry of press, which serves to fuel her stage amibitions. All the while, a simmering rivalry between Roxie and Velma propels us forward.

Style is the name of the game here. We slide in and out of musical dream sequences like any barrier to the world of fantasy were dropped completely. We get a deeper look into the souls of the characters by this device, plus a certain amount of spectacle, showmanship, and so on.

Is Chicago an attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Moulin Rouge? Are we amidst a resurgence of the movie musical? I write this going into Chicago's opening weekend so our first indications will come out Monday. I'm sure many will be watching these initial receipts to understand what it means for the industry. Will Chicago follow the traditional big opening "blockbuster" model for success, or will it be a film for the long haul, like a Titanic or Big Fat Greek Wedding? I really couldn't say, but this film is destined for success. How do I know? I don't trust the masses to follow my tastes, but this is one of the very few times that I've heard applause conclude a film outside a festival. There's something here that people are relating to.

What is it? I think it's a well put together film. I like the characters and how closely we look at them. I especially like Zellweger in her role - she has been showing some really good range the last few years. Zeta-Jones reminds me a lot of her other roles, but is perfect for the jaded star. Even Richard Gere is wonderfully smamry and manipulative. Mainly there is a lot of cleverness on the screen here. Yet I'm not eager to whole-heartedly embrace the film. It's good - even very good. I think my reservation is that it's a very straight film. Once we've established how things are going to work, we don't stray from the formula one iota. We are fed cleverness instead of surprise - and maybe that's a good thing for an adapatation that so many people will be familiar with.

When I think about Moulin Rouge, comparing it to this film, I find a lot of similarity. I enjoyed Moulin Rouge a lot more though. Is it that I'm a Baz Luhrmann fan? Maybe that's part of it. But more so is that, while both films have similar schticks and are faithful to that schtick throughout, Moulin Rouge has these wonderful embellishments, challenging us with how far the film can push its main idea. Chicago is like an album of pop songs connected by a set of themes. Even if they're all number one hits, you have certain things you know about each track - predictable lengths, a mix of ballads and faster songs, and less than challenging lyrics. I'll grant that Chicago is very good at doing what it's doing, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's just plenty of headroom still available for doing even better.

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