The Best Picture Project — Chicago (2002)

Chicagopostercast.jpgDirected by Rob Marshall

Screenplay by Bill Condon, based on ‘Chicago’ by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb and ‘Chicago’ by Maurine Dallas Watkins

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Taye Diggs, Christine Baranski, Dominic West, Lucy Liu and Deidre Goodwin

As with many of the films in this series – at least of the ones I’d seen before – I hadn’t laid eyes on Chicago in close to a decade before jotting down my take on it.  Sometimes, not having seen the film in years and forcing myself to revisit worked a detriment of the film, in that it made films I one enjoyed, seem a bit less than I thought they were – I’m looking at you A Beautiful Mind.  Sometimes, it only confirmed what I already knew – hello Gladiator.  So, in returning to it, Chicago faced the very real danger that while I once liked it a lot, I’d suddenly loathe it.  Fortunately – if you can call a middling response something of a fortune – I reacted to Chicago this time largely the same way I reacted to it last time.  Then, as now, I saw a film with parts I was fond of/blown away by, and parts I could have done without.  And perhaps in the most honest assessment a person can give, after having watched it again this time I suspect the DVD will do as it did before – it will go back into my collection and sit for another decade, if not more, collecting dust.

What’s It About

The themes of the movie aren’t complicated:  Chicago is a damning treatise on the fleeting nature of fame, the media and the public’s ghoulish fascination with violence and murder.  More specifically, it’s about two women who cross paths in jail awaiting trial for murder – Zellweger of her lover, Zeta-Jones of her sister and husband – who use their cunning and fame-whorishness to free themselves and get famous.  Along the way they laugh, they love, they learn lessons on the value of conniving.

What’s To Love?

From a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective, Chicago does exactly what a movie must[1] do – it starts out like gangbusters and grabs you from moment one.  The film’s opening, centered around the number “All The Jazz,” is without a doubt one of the most rollicking, engaging, visually active openings in movie history.  It crackles with energy and verve and uses crosscutting to say so much while saying very little.  It is, without a doubt, the kind of storytelling economy you only see from truly masterful directors, not ones just starting their first picture.

And honestly, it’s not just the opening, because the energy of the first minutes carries right on through to the “Cellblock Tango,” which is surely the highlight of the movie – both narrativley and visually.   To be honest, everything that’s right about the movie is there in the “Cellblock Tango.”  Many musicals have a problem figuring out the balance between the utter ‘fakeness’ of breaking into song in the middle of real life and the need to have those songs, i.e., you can’t be real if you’re suddenly belting out show tunes.  Chicago, though, doesn’t worry about the balance – it simply embraces the falseness of the musical numbers and solving the them by playing them as the fantasy going on in Zellweger’s head,[2] the counterpointing it with snippets of the reality she is processing through her head.  That way, the drama and pathos we crave aren’t undercut by somebody suddenly belting into a song when they otherwise would not.

In short, by embracing the unreality of it, Chicago transcends it – at least for a while.  At least as long as Catherine Zeta-Jones is on screen.

To be honest, as good as Zellweger is, she doesn’t sell her part in the same way other’s do – the highlight of the film is “Cellblock Tango”, and guess who isn’t in it?  No, the person in the movie who completely kills, in every scene she’s in, Catherine Zeta-Jones.  Her singing and dancing it’s…look, she just sells it and goes for broke every time.  And it’s not just she can sing and dance, because she truly performs the nuances of the character and the situation – that’s right, she doesn’t just capital-P Perform, she lower-case-P performs.  Sure, early on she nails the bravado and nerve, but by the end, when the character is called to do something different, she makes the sad reality and desperation palpable.  In fact, while others might highlight her work in the “Cellblock Tango” or the “I Can’t Do It Alone” bits, the actual truest, best piece of acting from her in the whole of the film is the short moment at the end when she’s gone to see Zellweger and beg her to join up as an act, and has to pull her skirt down over a threadbare stocking to hide her situation.  That one moment, with the skirt and her look, tells you everything you need to know about her.  It’s no wonder she won an Oscar for her performance.

What’s Not To Love?

Sometimes in life, things are less than the sum of their part, and with Chicago, this is painfully true.  Meaning that, to make it equal to, or greater than, the sum of its parts, the movie needs to lose some of those lesser parts.

See, the problem with the movie is that when Zeta-Jones is around, the film hums – really has kick.  When there’s only Zellweger, there isn’t quite as much humming, but she’s definitely up to the task of being competent at her job.  However, once you get away from them – to Latifah, Gere and O’Reilly – you lose that hum.  To be fair, those three don’t give bad performances, it’s just they’re parts are in many ways extraneous.  And, with Zeta-Jones owning this film, you don’t want anything to take away from her.  Might this mean cutting the “Mr. Cellophane”, “Razzle Dazzle” or “Tap Dance” down to size or just out of the movie completely?  Yes.  Would it hurt the film?  It could, but until they do it, I’ll never know.[3]

Beyond the less-than-the-sum-of-it’s-parts problem is the CGI.  Yes, there is only limited use of it here, but when it appears, it’s lousy.  Just three years after Gladiator’s lousy CGI of the coliseum and Rome propelled it to a Best Picture win – and by god, Gladiator had lousy CGI – the lousy CGI of Chicago helps propel it to a Best picture win.  As bad as the CGI is, I wonder why they even bothered.  After all, with a movie as chock-full of stylization as this one is, why not just go ahead and use a stylized backdrop for the city instead of some lousy CGI?  Just own it.

Nits to pick:

Even though I’m a lawyer, I accept that the legal system portrayed on film is usually grossly inaccurate.  After all, a movie like Chicago is not a documentary on the legal system and so should be granted dramatic license to maneuver things around for maximum effect.  Still, the procedural inaccuracy of the courtroom scenes in this movie drove me bonkers.  What with all the grandstanding and the evidentiary…


(Take a breath.)

(Let it go.)

As I say – it’s not a documentary on the legal system..

Surprising Find:

Above you’ll see, I credited Deidre Goodwin as being part of the cast, and that’s because she is part of the cast, even if in a small part.  Normally, I wouldn’t single out ladies with such a small role as her’s, except when I was watching this I realized I knew her face from somewhere – didn’t take long to realize she was Deborah (pronouned –Duh-bore-uh) on the “Milf Island” episode of 30 Rock.  Her big line in that episode can be seen at about the 29 second mark of the clip below.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

[1] I suspect John August and Craig Mazin of the Scriptnotes podcast would agree with me on this necesiity.

[2] In a similar vain, Cabaret solved the problem by making the songs nightclub pieces.

[3] On a similar note – I saw a stage version of Cabaret this past year that had the same problems as Chicago – once you got away from the MC and Sally Bowles, things began to bog down.  Fortunately, Bob Fosse made sure to keep the focus where it should have been all along for the film, even if he had to change the story around completely to get there.


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