Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Film: Chicago
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I will freely admit that I went into Chicago prepared to hate it. It seemed to me to be a distillation of everything I dislike in a movie sort of all at once. I already have problems with musicals, and Chicago features Renee Zellwegger (aka LemonFace), an actress I tend to dislike on sight. In fact, I blame her for duckface pictures. And yes, “hate” is a strong word, but as this blog sometimes shows, I’ve never been afraid of a strong opinion.

As it turns out, I didn’t hate Chicago, but I also didn’t like it very much. Before I get to the specific reasons why, let’s talk story.

Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) is married to Amos (John C. Reilly), a working class schlub. While he works as a mechanic, she’s off making the beast with two backs with furniture salesman Fred Casely (Dominic West). Part of that is, for her, because it’s more fun than waiting around for her sadsack husband and part of that is because Fred claims to have connections in Vaudeville. One night, they see Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) perform just before Velma is arrested for killing her husband and sister since she caught the pair also making the beast with two backs. Not too long after this, Fred dumps Roxie and she retaliates by shooting him. Amos takes the rap until he discovers that she was cheating, and he sends her off to the big house.

In prison, Roxie meets Velma, and the two dislike each other immediately. She also encounters Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), the prison matron who can get anything for a price. She introduces Roxie to Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a high-priced criminal lawyer who has never lost a case for a female client. He accepts Roxie’s case, putting Velma on the backburner, causing more bad blood between the pair.

Eventually, Roxie’s case goes to trial (she keeps her name in the papers by faking a pregnancy), Velma cuts a deal to get Roxie convicted, Amos gets screwed out of everything, Billy makes money, and the film ends with Velma and Roxie performing on stage as a duo, out and proud of having committed their crimes. After all, that’s Chicago.

So let’s talk good and bad here. I’ve mentioned above that I dislike Renee Zellwegger intensely, and that’s something difficult to get beyond. She’s not terrible here, but I still don’t like her very much. She’s a score in the negative column. In the positive column, though, is Queen Latifah. I don’t care how many accolades she gets as an actress, the woman is underrated. Her big number is one of the best ones in the film both because she’s got the pipes to pull it off and because she has the sex appeal to really work it. Also on the positive side is the fact that Rob Marshall trusted his cast to sing for themselves. It works in the case of John C. Reilly’s rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.” It doesn’t work so much when it comes to Richard Gere. He tries, but he’s not quite there. (I’m aware that many people may say the same thing of John C. Reilly, but it worked for me.)

Also to the positive here is the way the film is staged. We get a blend of numbers that function both to drive the story and give us insight into the characters, but also work as fantasy, as a behind-the-eyeballs look at what characters are thinking. When Amos confesses, for instance, we see Roxie singing a number about how much she loves her husband and how great he is to her. This shifts immediately when he discovers the truth. The singing here is essentially in her head—her costuming changes to that of a singer on stage, and the performance is on stage as well, and when the number ends, she’s back in the scene in the apartment in the clothes she had been wearing. The musical number is essentially what’s going on in her head rather than what’s going on in reality. It’s a neat mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic information—what’s real for us as the audience is not real for the characters on screen. This happens multiple times, to best effect with Mama Morton’s sexually-charged prison song, and again when the other female prisoners confess their crimes.

This, more than anything, is the biggest positive for this film. The staging of the film is incredibly inventive and beautiful to watch. “We Both Reached for the Gun,” for instance, is a film highpoint, with Roxie sitting on Billy’s lap as a ventriloquist dummy and the reporters shown on puppet strings pulled by Billy to get the press he wants. It’s the sort of thing that makes the movie version of any stage production viable—the way this is depicted in the film would be impossible on stage, but there is very much a sense of the stage here—it’s a near perfect mix of live theater and technical film wizardry.

If this is the high point, though, the low point is the characters themselves. With the single exception of Amos Hart, these characters are terrible people. Roxie Hart is a slut, offering sex to virtually anyone and anything that can get her ahead. She’s selfish, conceited, and willing to step on anyone and anything to get ahead. It’s a statement that could be made of about 90% of the characters in the film, in fact. These people—Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn—are sociopaths. To get Roxie off, Billy Flynn manipulates evidence, panders to the jury, has his client commit perjury, and destroys the career of the district attorney. Why would I root for this guy? Why would anyone want me to be happy when Roxie gets everything she wants? She’s a terrible human being.

And ultimately, that kills my opinion of the film. The characters are narcissists and sociopaths, guilty of awful acts and proud of having done them. Chicago is visually dazzling (often with skimpy, sexy costumes), but morally reprehensible. I can’t get past that.

Why to watch Chicago: More flesh per square inch than you’d expect.
Why not to watch: Bad behavior is not just rewarded, but lauded.


  1. Great review. Chicago is one of those films that, upon initial impression is "not bad," but why did it deserve an Oscar for Best Picture?

  2. I think I liked the film more than you did, but yeah: Richard Gere, though a talented dancer, sings like a duck.

  3. When you consider that it won Best Picture over Gangs of New York, The Two Towers, and The Pianist, it becomes even more difficult to fathom. It also beat out The Hours, which I can't speak to, since I haven't seen it, but I imagine this would leave me just as nonplussed.

  4. I don't think you're off base with your sociopath description, but calling it a fault of the film is a bit much. That's the POINT of the movie. Everyone, besides Amos, is terrible. And I don't think this is shown in a positive light, either. In fact, just the opposite. It's a social commentary on how terrible the human race is. They want to see a hanging. They want to see the next "big murder case." It's all a show with a bit of razzle dazzle. And once your name is out of that spotlight, you're nearly forgotten. So no, I don't think your assessment is true at all. While the character might see their actions in the positive, the film itself is damning the society and its beliefs and actions and, thus, the actions of the characters themselves.

  5. While I can see that, much of the film comes from the point of view of the characters themselves. You can't tell me that Roxie, Velma, and Billy don't end up where they want to be, can you? From their perspective--and thus in many ways from our perspective as the audience--they win. I don't think this is anyone holding up a mirror to society.

    And the pages of "Who's more awesome: Roxie or Velma" threads on IMDB indicate to me that most people don't even get so far as to see these characters as bad or wrong.

  6. But therein proves my point. People are morons.

    And there's a flaw to your logic. There are plenty of movies and TV shows that are from the perspective of bad people (or at least antiheroes). Dexter, for instance. It's not advocating serial killing, but he certainly justifies it and typically "wins." I think it's pretty evident that Roxie, Velma, and Billy know they're scum (though it takes Roxie until the end, but she's daft anyway). In use notoriety to their advantages, whether that means fame for Velma and Roxie or money for Billy.

  7. I have a feeling we're going to disagree on most every musical you review. :-) I liked Chicago quite a bit.

    Actually, director Marshall shot the performance numbers as fantasy sequences PRECISELY for the people who expect musicals to be realistic, so I was interested to see you mentioning that. Here's food for thought - is the last number for real, or just in Roxie's head?

    By the way, Latifah did a fantastic job in Hairspray, too, but it's another musical where people just break into song.

    As for how the characters are supposed to be perceived, I agree with Nick. The whole point of the film is a condemnation of a society and justice system that does let them get away with that. It's loosely based on two women who DID commit murder in Chicago in the 20s and get away with it. As for the IMDB boards, they are primarily populated by teens and tweens who have trouble telling the difference between "protagonist" and "hero". Just because people are the lead characters doesn't mean they are supposed to be seen as good. Falling Down is a great film for starting a discussion on this topic. After you've watched it with someone, ask them, "At what point, if any, did Michael Douglas' character become 'the bad guy'?" I almost always get different answers from people.

    "Slut" is another word open for misinterpretation. The best definition I have ever seen for it is "someone who has sex more often than you do."

    By the way, I also have problems liking movies if I don't like the characters, so I know where you are coming from.

  8. Bad internet connection--bear with me.

    I use the term "slut" very rarely. I don't think I've spoken it in years, and this might be the first time I've used it here. For me, the word means someone who is sexually unable to keep a commitment to an extreme degree--and by that measure, it fits Roxie.

    The essential lack of consequence for anyone in the film is my major problem with it--the film rewards bad behavior, based on real cases or not. It's telling that in the number where the women on Murderer's Row admit their crimes, the one who we are shown as innocent (the Hunyak--her scarves are white and not red) is the one who gets hanged. This is my only real problem with the film, but it's a dealbreaker for me. In terms of how it is staged and filmed, Chicago is brilliant. With a different story (or at least a different outcome), it would rank as one of my favorite musicals ever.

    I haven't seen the remake of Hairspray, but I love the original. It does not surprise me that Queen Latifah is great in it. I know she's done some bombs, but I tend to like her, singing or not.

  9. My issue here is that you're saying it's a fundamental flaw of the film itself, not just a personal issue you have with the movie. I don't think it's a flaw of the film in any way, shape, or form. In fact, the innocent woman getting hanged even further pushes the themes of a corrupt and unfair society and legal system, which seems to be the exact opposite of what you imply.

  10. Yes, the film is about a corrupt and unjust society. However, I don't see that the film is taking issue with it--it's merely showing it. No one in the film--not even Amos because he's too stupid--finds any fault with it.

    Look, I know I'm close to alone in this, but you and now Chip are the first two people I have ever talked to about this film/play who see it the way you do. Everyone else, including some of my former professors and co-workers, root for Roxie, Velma, or both.

    So yeah, I'm saying that it's a fundamental flaw. If the audience is supposed to get that moral judgment from the film, it fails with virtually everyone.

  11. Really? I've never rooted for Roxie or Velma and never knew anybody who did. And if they do, it's for the exact reason Chip said--not seeing the difference between a protagonist and a hero.

    And I still disagree that no character finds fault in the system. They almost ALL find fault in the system. They just so happen to exploit those faults. Richard Gere in particular knows how fucked up everything is, but rolls with it anyway. Roxie learns as soon as the trial ends and she loses her publicity after the court house shooting (and then fails to get a job, even with her former notoriety) that everything isn't as peachy as she thought it was. Of course, it all depends on how you see the final number. As previously said, it's all most likely in her head, just like every other number in the film. And Amos most certainly finds fault in it. The whole bit where he realizes he was lied to and used just for the sake of her popularity. He immediately sees the unfairness of everything and then leaves her.

  12. Eh, we're not going to come to consensus on this. You're not going to convince me and I'm not going to budge you.

    And I'm going to continue to say that the characters don't find fault with the system. They have no desire or impetus to change it precisely because they can exploit it. There's a difference between finding fault in the system and profiting from the system's weaknesses. They aren't exposing the problems--none of them want the problems solved. If anything, the only problem Roxie wants solved is that she didn't get a chance to cash in as well as she would have liked. The "fault" she's finding there is that she didn't get hers.

  13. You can add me to the list of people who think the "bad behavior" is utterly intentional. Whether it came through properly in the film or not (it's been a while since I've seen it), the story is absolutely meant to be a satire on a society that lauds criminals. It's about the way society (1920s Chicago or 2010s America) treats criminals like celebrities and gets off on violence and rebellious behavior. The characters exploit that and they're rewarded for it, within the context of a society that rewards such behavior. Staging everything as a showbiz number isn't just a stylistic device, it's highlighting the way our society makes everything into entertainment, even sordid stories about murderers.

    I actually liked the movie very much when I saw it, despite the amount of hate that's come down on its head from film critics and fans since. As you pointed out, I thought the structure of integrating the musical numbers as clearly fantasy was pretty great. What I did not like was the editing during the dance numbers. They're dance numbers originally choreographed by Bob Fosse, and Marshall shoots them so close-up and with so much editing you can hardly see the dancing at all. DUDE. If you're shooting Bob Fosse choreography, pull the hell back, don't cut, and let us see what the dancers are doing.

  14. Your comment on the editing is spot on. One of the things I like about classic musicals--particularly Astaire/Rogers and Gene Kelly--is the fact that we generally see the whole body(ies) of the dancer(s) and frequently go for longer than a minute without a cut. These people had real talent, and there's something very much to be said for letting us see all of that talent on display. Each one of those song and dance sequences would be greatly lessened by a tight shot.

    As for the other stuff...3 vs. thousands...

  15. Fred Astaire had it in his contract that his dance numbers were to be shot always showing his whole body, and I think without cutting. Certainly he preferred long takes. Nicely done, Mr. Astaire. Nicely done.

  16. Wow, go away for a week and look what I've missed. I am NOT adding this comment to start/continue any arguments. There were just a few places where I was referred to or something new was mentioned, and there were questions as to how I saw things. Just as an FYI only:

    1. I didn't root for the protagonists of the film. Here's a better example than Chicago, though, where I did - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These are thieves and murderers, yet they are the protagonists, so many people, including myself, rooted for them. And yes, they did "pay for their crimes", which a lot of people didn't like.

    2. I also have not met anyone else who rooted for the protagonists of Chicago, other than the aforementioned young posters on IMDB (who root for the protagonists of films like American Psycho, too).

    3. I agree on the editing of the dance numbers. I do remember seeing an interview with Richard Gere sometime where he said that he was confident he could do the singing, but he didn't know if he could do the dancing. Perhaps the editing was to cover up his more egregious faults.

    1. I think it's entirely fair that I'm in the minority on this blog on this one. Hey, if I didn't catch a little hell now and then, what would be the point? Ultimately, anyone's view on a film is going to be subjective. I see where y'all are coming from; I just disagree.

      It would make sense that Gere was edited that way. He's not, after all, a dancer. I wonder if they considered Hugh Jackman...

    2. Now that you mention it, Jackman would have been interesting in the role. I could see him playing a sleazy lawyer. He was only a coule action films and a couple romcoms into his Hollywood career then, so the studio probably wouldn't have considered him.

      As for catching hell, did you ever see the comments on my Hugo review? http://tipsfromchip.blogspot.com/2012/02/movie-hugo-2011.html

    3. I agree with you on 3D, incidentally. It hurts my eyes.

      Jackman would have been interesting--he could have pulled the role off, was gaining a name (X-Men had already been released), and started life on stage in musicals. Dunno.

  17. I know that there are so very many films that can be named exhibiting narcissistic characters, but I think that Roxie's character is by far the very best example of a film characterization of a narcissist. Someone had to finally "take the cake", so to speak. The recurring theme where she is a superstar-in-her-own-head juxtaposed to the yeah-so-what-don't-call-us-we'll-call-you reaction to her heartfelt audition is a textbook example of an NPD overestimating their mediocre talent. The heartbreak, when a murder stole "their" spotlight is also typical, and a perfect example of a narcissistic injury. The complete lack of empathy for her husband, her lover, her lawyer and the murder victims outside, and her single minded concern for protecting her supply, at the expense of everything... Does it get more narcissistic than that?

    1. If I really think about it, I might be able to come up with someone who matches her, but probably not in a film this highly acclaimed, and I probably can't think of someone who would top her in this department. Ultimately, that's what killed this film for me.