Review Podcast Rating

Chicago (2002)

The Best Picture winner at the 75th Academy Awards is a curious case, full of contradictions and nuances and dualities. It’s a Broadway adaptation with flat, stagy direction by Rob Marshall, a TV movie director. Yet… it features some of the most iconic and riveting musical number productions of the past quarter century.

The editing is, on the one hand, jarringly hyperactive, obfuscating choreography and any sense of space, as if Marshall and editor Martin Walsh learned all the wrong lessons from Moulin Rouge! Yet… the film rightly won the Best Editing Oscar for its monumental, almost impressionistic clash between diegetic and artificial mise-en-scenes — adding a rich dimension to the film that would simply be impossible on stage.

The story is full of unpleasant characters who do unpleasant things while still pulling some of its nastiest punches. (Why introduce Queen Latifah as a sexually domineering warden but give her nothing to do?) Yet… it’s one of the most potent and incisive satires of the 21st century.

Chicago is, in other words, equal parts frustrating and transcendent. It’s a powerfully stirring film, but also one that feels like it doesn’t quite reach its potential.

The film tells the story of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), an aspiring entertainer who kills her secret lover after he dumps her. After she’s arrested, she finds herself dueling with Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to be queen bee of the cell block. She recruits notorious attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to defend her, and he does so by relentlessly manipulating the media and narrative so that the jury buys her as the victim of a woman-exploiting society.

Gere and Zeta-Jones are best-in-show. Zeta-Jones won an Oscar for the turn, and it’s hard to blame the Academy. She is absolutely dazzling and screen-controlling, embodying the film’s themes of weaponized feminism and image-driven self-definition. Gere is her peer, though, hopping off the screen with razor-sharp charisma and chops; if you’re going to nominate Zeta-Jones, why not him? Zellweger, too, is great in the lead, though somehow the third-most interesting performance. (Shout out to Lucy Liu who delivers a jaw-dropping 3-minute cameo.)

The film’s numbers are of inconsistent quality, but the highs are extremely memorable. Everybody remembers “Cell Block Tango” — it’s the film’s thematic mission statement and also its biggest earworm, with some eye-popping use of red. I tip my hat even more to Gere’s “They Both Reached for the Gun” which turns a press conference into a marionette puppet show.

The film has a thick layer of satire about the performative, malleable power of media, and it rings resonant in 2022. It’s not hard to draw a straight line between the murder trials in this film (based on true stories!) and Trump’s 2016 win nearly a century later.

It all is brimming with energy and life, but it feels held back by Marshall’s lack of intuition on constructing a coherent and visually appealing scene. Marshall had only made TV movies prior to this, and has made mostly stinkers-by-reputation since (I haven’t seen any); it seems he struck lightning with cast and material and fresh ideas without much nuts-and-bolts technique to back it up.

Chicago is an exciting visual experience that gives me a lot of mixed feelings scene-to-scene and number-to-number, but one that’s essential viewing, warts and all.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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