Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chicago (2002)

(as posted on

If you can’t be famous, be infamous

I can think of very few movies that feature such shamelessly murderous protagonists who you’re still rooting for, hoping that get away with their crimes. Maybe it’s because of how much fun they seem to be having conniving and manipulating their way through the system, or because, as the ladies in the show-stopping Cell Block Tango number sing about their murdered beloveds, they had it coming. They had it coming all along.

I’ll cut to the chase: Roxie Hart (Renée Zellwegger) is a vaudeville-aspirant-turned-murderess, on trial in the Cook County Jail after she discovers the man she is having an affair with has been lying to her about the one thing that she really cares about - her ticket to the stage - and kills him. In prison, she comes across the matron Mama Morton (a deliciously fun Queen Latifah) and her own inspiration and fellow murderess, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones - also gloriously decadent). They must strive for the fame that will save them from the gallows in 1920s Chicago. Things aren’t looking too good for Roxie, until she chances into Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) - a lawyer with a heart of gold, gold from the five thousand dollar fee he charges for ensuring an acquittal. And so begins the circus.

And what a spectacle it is - the movie is one show stopping musical set-piece after another. We kick off with Velma Kelly’s superlative take on All That Jazz, a piece that serves to contrast her falling stardom with that of Roxie’s rising one. All of Chicago seems to hold its breath as Velma Kelly shimmies on stage, and in the audience, there’s Roxie, first looking on in awe, then imagining herself in the spotlight. There’s a nice splash of witty editing - Roxie clutching the handlebars in bed is contrasted with Velma clutching her backup dancer’s hands. Beyond a clever take, it’s also a great nod to the extent of Roxie’s desire to be on that stage.

Queen Latifah gives us a saucy little take on When You’re Good to Mama, an introduction to her tit-for-tat policy that Roxie will later learn to exploit. The aforementioned Cell Block Tango is an impressively written succession of monologues (“We parted on artistic differences - he saw himself as alive - and I saw him dead”) in a grand ode to murders that ought not be called crimes. Richard Gere shines in his introduction as the lawyer who really just cares about love, then literally strings a charmed media along in another brilliantly visualised sequence in They Both Reached For The Gun.

The breakneck pacing is allowed to breathe with a series of numbers throwing some more light on our leading ladies, with Velma trying to convince Roxie to get on with her act, while the true extent of Roxie’s own showbiz mania comes through in a faux stand up performance-of-her-dreams. Before you know it though, the movie is back to its breakneck showmanship, with the grand centrepiece, at least as far as I’m concerned - Give ‘em The ol’ Razzle Dazzle. The nature of the charade Billy Flynn’s spinning for the entire system is masterfully executed here, with the courtroom standing transformed into aBarnum and Bailey creation for Flynn’s ringmaster. Swift cuts juxtapose the theatre our lawyer’s trying to create, simultaneously merging it with the reality of the courtroom until the two are virtually indistinguishable. The cheering crowd would be just as at home in an auditorium, and the way Roxie poses coyly at the camera, you would think she’s on the red carpet.

Renée Zellwegger, who plays Roxie in Chicago, poses coyly at the camera on the red carpet.

Image above and on article thumbnail from Wikimedia Commons here.

Creative Commons License

The genius of Chicago, as I touched upon in the start, lies in this refusal to have a moral centre. If there is anyone with an honest heart in this movie, it's Roxie’s steadfastly loyal husband - and he doesn’t meet with a great fate himself. The murderers and the liars, on the other hand, frolic in their fame, and the movie has the conviction to let them get away with it all - conscience be damned. It’s unapologetic, debauched, gaudy, and the one of the best times I’ve had at the cinema.

And look, if you want a message movie, go watch Taare Zameen Par.

No comments:

Post a Comment