Saturday Mini-Review: Chicago

Saturday, March 25, 2006

This thing was the Best Picture of 2002?? Give me a break. It's no wonder that Roger L. Simon believes the movies are going down the tubes. Not that it's not professionally done, not that it lacks a certain interest, not that it is entirely devoid of originality, but. My personal movie scale has four categories: Not Worth Watching, Worth Watching, Recommended, and Classic. To be Worth Watching the film must have at least some interesting redeeming features. For me that's a pretty low bar and most films manage to jump over it one way or another. To be Recommended it must be worthy of the attachment of my sacred honor and most films don't manage that. Classics are in a different category entirely--these are the movies that have somehow transcended the movie business and become an inherent part of the culture. That doesn't mean they're necessarily good or that they were necessarily enjoyable. Star Wars is a classic, for example, whatever one may think of it. For Chicago, I was debating in my own mind whether it was even Worth Watching. Probably, but just barely.

It's not terribly engaging, for one thing. Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Babe, and Richard Gere might appear to be an extremely unlikely trio, and appearances would not be deceiving. They all mix like oil and water but the format of this movie is such that it doesn't really matter. The movie has one really interesting new idea, to wit, intersperse the actual events occurring within the plot with a song-and-dance number which expresses what's really going on in what is, shall we say, a more honest fashion. This led to a couple of memorable scenes, such as Richard Gere literally tapdancing interspersed with Richard Gere trying hard to defend his client in court. I'm allergic to Richard Gere on general principles but he's ok in this rather gaudy role.

However, one idea repeated over and over quickly becomes boring. Sadly, the movie reaches the point where you wish it would end simply because you're bored. It's hard not to just walk out. I like the idea of musicals abstractly though I seldom like musicals concretely. It's nice that they're trying to revive the genre. But the plot is weak, the characters are not all that interesting, and the dialog has some spots that can only be characterized as...tepid. The actors did a good job singing and dancing, which I suppose is entertaining if that's your bag. It's one of those plays made into movies which still look like plays. I'm sure it's great for the Manhattan theater crowd; it just doesn't do much for the great unwashed masses like your humble author.


loner said...

It wasn't quite the best, but it was the best of the five nominees though it's a close call between it and The Pianist.

My movie industry buddy saw it with my wife and I during the week after Christmas in 2002. His first words to me afterwards were, "Is this the Best Picture winner?" Mine were, "Probably."

Why and why?

More later.

terrye said...

My idea of musical might be Walk the Line. I would like to see that.

When I was a kid I loved My Fair Lady. I don't know if I could set through it today or not, but Rex Harrison would have to beat the hell out of Richard Gere.

Alistair said...

I agree completely with the sentiments you express, if not the timing of your expression, in this review. (I, for one, would be very interested in your opinion of something slightly more recent, say this year's best picture winner.) This movie was made strictly because people felt nostalgia for Musicals. Hollywood execs (much like the esteemed Roger L. Simon, who, after all, does vote both on the Oscar winners and nominees) made this movie, undoubtedly, both because of their own personal nostalgia and to capitalize on that of others. But where other nostalgic films are quirky and show a love for the source, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Man Who Wasn't There, this film is coldly professional and unsparingly inhuman. Sure the performances are decent as is the direction, script, choreography, and music; there's just no heart in any of it. You get the feeling that everyone performed their jobs as well as they did not out of a love for the material, but rather, much like a child running for class president just for the sake of winning, merely to prove to themselves how good they could be. Quite good they think, and the academy would seem to agree. This decision (the benefits bestowed to this film by the academy) was once again carried out not for a love of the movie, but for political reasons (we want to push musicals, you should like Richard Gere [even though we won't cast him in anything], and other insane thoughts these people have if they think at all.).

When watching this movie I don't notice the quality of any individual part, so much as the quality the filmmakers insist that each part has; sometimes almost forcibly. I still can't believe this won best picture. I guess you can't really expect much more from those who honestly think that Oscars should be given away based on a movie's genre, rather than its content; the past work of its creators, rather than what they have currently made; or its subject, rather than its message. Maybe I'm being too harsh, after all, Hollywood execs judge a person's worth based on her looks. And many of us equate fame with worth. So how much can you really expect? Stars play all the leads and there are an excruciating number of songs. (They sing what they feel!) I guess that's enough to make some box office bank and be recognized as the best film of the year. But not enough to save this film from a two-pronged blog attack.

loner said...

Chicago, the movie, is a 2002 adaptation of the Kander & Ebb stage musical of the same name. The late Bob Fosse directed, choreographed and co-wrote the book for it. The movie version was directed by Rob Marshall. He was nominated for Tony Awards in 1998 for co-directing and choreographing the revival of Cabaret. Cabaret, the movie, was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and is an adaptation of the Kander and Ebb stage musical of the same name. Chicago, the stage musical, premiered in 1975 and was revived (in a somewhat different staging) in 1996. It's still selling out. Terry Teachout joins me in recommending it.

Last year saw the release of yearend movie adaptations of two major stage musicals. They were Rent and The Producers. Rent cost $40 million to produce. It grossed a little under $30 million. The Producers cost $45 million to produce. It grossed a little under $29 million. The year before it was an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. It cost $70 million to produce and grossed $154.5 million ($51 million of it domestic.) The year before was too soon to not cash in on the non-revival of interest in movie adaptations of stage musicals. Chicago cost $45 million to produce, $30 million to market and it grossed more than $306 million.

Using the MHA movie rating categories, I’d contend that Cabaret, released in 1972, is the last movie adaptation of a stage musical that should be labeled a Classic. Among non-stage musical, of many types, movies released since then one I’d Highly Recommend is Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, released in 1979. Bob Fosse fictionalized the period in his life when he was editing Lenny, producing Chicago and having the heart attack that didn’t kill him.

About now you may be asking yourself, yeah, but what does any of this have to do with whether or not Chicago is at least, in the opinion of this movie viewer, a Recommend on the MHA scale. It boils down to this. Cabaret is this movie viewer’s second favorite among movies released in the ‘70s and All That Jazz is among his favorite 20. [Note: Star Wars is among his favorite 10.] Chicago may not be their equal, but it is in their league, and for this viewer, who never for a moment thought its success had anything to do with a renewed interest in movie versions of stage musicals, that is a near-miracle and that is reason enough to embrace it whatever its flaws.

A movie version of Chicago was a no-go for many years. It was only when Rob Marshall came up with the idea of making many (or is it all?) of the musical numbers the mental fantasies of lead-femme Roxie Hart that the movie version was green-lighted. I’m sort of surprised that someone (Bob Fosse for instance) hadn’t come up with this idea years before. For one thing, the stage musical sometimes carries the sub-title: A Musical Vaudeville and, as the entry notes, it “made the play's comparison between ‘justice’ and ‘show-business’ explicit by conceptualizing the plot as a series of vaudeville acts.” The “play” in question is the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, also called Chicago. There is a 1942 movie adaptation of that play. Ginger Rogers stars as Roxie Hart. The entry also provides a list of the songs and the vaudeville acts upon which the songs in the stage musical were modelled. For another, the movie adaptation of Caberet makes much more explicit than does the stage musical that what is happening in the Kit Kat Club is commentary on what is going on in Berlin during a few years in the 1930s.

And then there is the where and when. The time and place are legendary. We are in Chicago during the Roaring ‘20s. We are in Chicago. It’s the Roaring ‘20s. The archetypes of an entire entertainment genre are living and dying in that place at that time. Knowing the contributors to this blog as I do I think I need only write A Piece of the Action and you’ll understand that this is no ordinary time and place.

And then there are Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah singing and dancing and not once causing me to cringe. A year earlier, in Moulin Rouge!, Ewan MacGregor, who can do most anything, showed he could sing. Nicole Kidman faked her way through.

Why was it the immediate Best Picture favorite? It was produced by Miramax and, unlike Gangs of New York, in a sold-out movie theater with a big screen and state-of-the-art sound it delivered two hours of high-powered, involving, quality entertainment.

If MHA had argued that what the movie was doing was all Razzle Dazzle:

Give ‘em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger 'em
When you're in trouble, go into your dance

I might have just responded:

I love my life...and all that jazz, but probably not.

Eric Blair said...

Hey, it wasn't "Molin Rouge" now, was it?

MeaninglessHotAir said...


I like Moulin Rouge quite a bit. In some ways the two movies are quite similar so it's hard to justify that I suppose, but no, this one was no Moulin Rouge