The first good thing to say about "Chicago" is that Richard Gere is alive. Not just alive, after his recent deadly performances as a man without emotions, but alive with wit and pizazz and bravado and smarts and a decent singing voice and even a cheesy soft-shoe. The second good thing is that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger don't let us down. They actually sing, dance, and act in that great Bob Fosse-era style of flashy legs, big eyes and the kind of knowing attitude that plays directly to the audience.
The period is Prohibition, the city is - well, you know. Zellweger is Roxie Hart, married to a zhlub (John C. Reilly) but cheating on him with a furniture salesman who tells her he has show-business contacts. When Roxie finds out he's lying, she shoots him, bang bang bang, and goes to jail where she meets Velma Kelly, already a star of sorts with a sister act in vaudeville, who killed her husband and sister when she found them in bed together. Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) introduces her to the great defense attorney Billy Flynn (Gere). "If Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago," he says, "and had five thousand bucks to hire me, things would have turned out different."
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Roxie's getting Billy as her attorney, though he's already defending Velma; and the rivalry between the two women for his attention. But the film is built not around the story but around the Kander and Ebb songs that evoke the gin-fueled twenties. Director Rob Marshall is also the choreographer, and he's built a Fosse-like structure for his numbers; he's not afraid to go from dialogue to dance and song without an introduction.
Not surprisingly it works just fine. In fact he choreographs so well - a number in which Gere is a ventriloquist, Zellweger is his dummy, and marionettes dance all around them as another Billy pulls the strings is the high point of the movie - that we realize the Kander and Ebb songs are in fact too weak to sustain the show. There's a sameness to almost all of them (Reilly's "Cellophane Man," about how everyone sees through him as though he's not there, is one exception, Latifah's song about herself is the other, and isn't it odd that the two outsiders have the best songs) that brings us dangerously close to ennui.
But Velma and Roxie are all eyes and thighs. They're great to watch, Zeta-Jones with her black Louise Brooks hair and her vamping look, Zellweger with her tight blonde curls and her little-girl voice. And they play against each other with brio and fire. Who'd have thought? And the film's finale, a stunning song and dance for the two of them, is just brilliant. Zellweger, particularly, shows off some real dancing chops.
It's natural to try and compare "Chicago" with Baz Lurhmann's "Moulin Rouge," but they're completely different in every way other than the fact that both films treat music and dance as elements equally important with dialogue and action. Both dazzle on first viewing but fade quickly afterward, but that's not really a problem. We need every bit of dazzle we can get these days, and both of them deliver in spades.