It’s not often that you get to see a splashy star-studded musical that barely raises an eyebrow over the crime of murder. In Chicago, the acridly exhilarating adaptation of the late Bob Fosse’s 1975 Broadway smash, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), a Kewpie-doll ’20s nobody with the powdery face of a cherubic dumpling, rejects her dullsville marriage and takes on a lover, only to discover that he’s a lout; she reacts to the news by shooting him dead at point-blank range. Roxie is guilty as sin, but she’s so cuddly that we like her a lot anyway. In Cook County jail, she meets her comrades on Murderess Row, an entire prison wing of angry ladies who did in the men who done them wrong. To justify themselves, they perform the ”Cell Block Tango,” in which each murderess emerges, in turn, like a smirking-siren version of one of the dancers in Jailhouse Rock. The women sing and shimmy with Fosse-esque ferocity as they explain why they deep-sixed their husbands and lovers.
The motives, to put it mildly, are a bit petty. The first killer sings that what drove her over the edge was the way that her man popped his bubblegum. Her righteousness is undeterred: ”He had it comin’!” she belts, kicking her amazing legs up to the ceiling. ”He only had himself to blame!” The others, equally smashing, slink out onto the floor to do variations on the same routine, as the chorus bends and surges into a crescendo of happy wrath. The number gives off an electrical comic charge, and it comes from the way that the erotic zam! of these killer ladies is presented as the ultimate justification for what they did. What they’re really saying is, The guy had it comin’, all right, and that’s because he didn’t appreciate the beauty of this.
Set during the late bloom of the Jazz Age, ”Chicago,” in its caustic high-spirited way, presents us with a vision of women on the cusp of feminism who will do anything to break free of the conventionality imposed by men. They’ll sing and dance in sleazy nightclubs, kill their boring and ruthless spouses, and become infamous to escape punishment for their crimes. Bravado is all — far more vital than morality — and ”Chicago,” freshly transplanted from the stage, is a thrilling ode to the intertwined glories of sex, showmanship, and lying: what the film calls ”the old razzle-dazzle.” In jail, Roxie meets her idol, the flapper-haired vaudeville star Velma Kelly, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones with a tigress voice and a vamp’s sloe-eyed cunning. Zeta-Jones sets the film’s tone with her sensational performance of ”All That Jazz,” in which she keeps stretching out the word Jazzzzz! so that it blares like a trumpet powered by a gust of pure libido. Roxie also gets hooked up with the infamous Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a charlatan lawyer who has never lost a case of a woman accused of homicide. Billy, with his corrupt dimples, has a simple strategy: He’ll transform Roxie into a tabloid celebrity, knowing that the charisma of her bad-girl fame will let her off the hook. ”Chicago” is a giddy celebration of getting away with it, in all its merry forms.
Rob Marshall, the musical-theater stalwart who choreographed and directed the movie, is far from a visual wizard. I wish that he had done more with the prison set than just flood it with conventionally ”hot” blue and red light. In a strange way, though, the shot-on-a-soundstage plainness of Marshall’s prosaic style works for the movie, linking it less to a stoned funhouse jukebox like ”Moulin Rouge” than to an earlier tradition of Hollywood musicals, with each number bucking and snapping to life from the simplest of elements.
Marshall cuts back and forth, in the middle of a number, between realistic settings (the prison, a courthouse) and a nightclub where the same figures are viewed on stage. Virtually every one of the John Kander?Fred Ebb songs is a bouncing distillation of cynical glee, and the performers bite into the numbers like tart apples, whether it’s the impish sarcasm of Richard Gere singing ”All I Care About,” Queen Latifah, as the prison warden who likes her favors, doing ”When You’re Good to Mama,” or John C. Reilly, as Roxie’s clueless mechanic husband, unleashing a surprisingly lustrous baritone to evoke Al Jolson in the great, mock-melancholy ”Mr. Cellophane.” The sardonic showstopper is a press-conference production number, with Roxie as a ventriloquist’s dummy seated on Billy’s lap, the reporters as puppets on strings, and the line ”They both reached for the gun!” repeated by the sycophantic press in syncopated variations until it reaches a thrilling frenzy.
”Chicago” was ahead of its time in the ’70s, but its satirical vision of celebrity as the arbiter of all things no longer has a naughty novelty. The musical’s true thrill is its roxy heart: all of these jailed women, like feminist alchemists, converting their desperation into pure, sexy, exuberant victory. Zellweger makes the transformation manifest. She starts out as frightened as a rabbit, like a tremulous Altman heroine, but as Roxie pulls herself together and becomes the mistress of her own duplicity, the screen blooms with that Zellweger zest. By the end of ”Chicago,” just about everyone in it has razzle-dazzled someone, and so has the movie, which leaves you thrilled at how good it feels to see life, death, and girl power turned, once again, into a cabaret.