Year of Release: 2002 Directed Rob Marshall. Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly.
I have always been disappointed to see the number of Christian movie critics who dislike this film. Admittedly, the tone of the film is fairly dark, and nearly all the characters revel in various forms of immorality; however, the film carefully examines a world that enables such behavior.
The film is set in prohibition era Chicago among the jazz nightclubs and liquor joints. Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) idolizes the showbiz lifestyle and dreams of becoming a star performer like her idol Velma Kelly (a phenomenal Catherine Zeta-Jones). In order to get an inside connection, Roxie is sleeping with an acquaintance who promises to get her started in show business by speaking to his friend about her talent. Once Roxie discovers that her lover has no connection in show business, she shoots him in cold blood and lands in the Cook County Jail.
While in prison Roxie meets Velma, who is also under arrest for the murder of her sister and husband, whom she caught cheating on her. Both women hire Chicago’s best lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to get them acquitted. With his aid, they lie, manipulate, and swindle the justice system, the media, the public, and one another.
I have heard complaints that in Chicago the guilty live happily ever after while the innocent are punished and are losers in general. That is true, because the entire film is shot from Roxie’s perspective and is meant to showcase her obsession with the razzle dazzle façade of show business. She also lives in a society that shares her fantasies; consequently, the media and the public have no interest or sympathy for the virtuous. Well behaved people do not sell newspapers, make headlines, and are too boring to waste the time defending. However, the darkness and shallowness of a world that defines success by the veneer of fame and celebrity is bitingly satirized over the course of the film.
To emphasize the fantasy of Roxie’s obsession, the musical numbers are shot as an imagined stage performance, complete with stage lights, sexualized nightclub costumes, as Roxie looks on or participates with awe and wonder. The frequent edits cut from performer to performer as Roxie absorbs the scene, never stopping to examine the squalor that is at the heart of this world that she admires.
At one point, as Roxie dreams about her future as a famous Chicago vaudeville stage performer she sings, “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Roxie…They’re gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose…” Roxie views herself as an object whose value is determined by her celebrity status.
The opening number, “And All That Jazz,” along with director Rob Marshall’s choreography, perfectly sets the tone for the film. It is the only song not filmed in the fantasy world of Roxie’s imagination. Instead she looks on with envy as Velma performs the famous showstopper. For one note, the film cuts to Roxie performing the song in her imagination, and then returns to her affair, the sole purpose of which is to promote her stage career. Velma’s dance moves even mirror the motions of Roxie as she begins to make out with her lover. All of Roxie’s actions during this number are meant to propel her into the world of all that jazz.
Although Chicago is filmed from Roxie’s perspective, the film does not condone it. The film draws the viewer into Roxie’s fantasy with topnotch production numbers, but via the quick edits from fantasy to reality, the film makes one seriously consider how Roxie is achieving her goals.
When Roxie does receive a warning to the consequences of her actions, she chooses to recede even further into deceit and theatrics. Perhaps she has trapped herself into this world, or perhaps the celebrity worshipping public has forced her there. Either way she masters perpetually performing in order to beguile the public. As Roxie sings at the end of the film, “You can like the life your living, you can live the life you like, you can even marry Harry, but mess around with Ike. And that’s good isn’t it? Grand isn’t it? Swell isn’t it? Nowadays.” As long as she maintains her swell performing status, nothing else matters to her.
There are many elements of humor in the film, but the humor does not arise because the immorality is funny. Instead the satire presupposes a moral compass that the actions of the characters are wrong and absurd. If killing one’s husband by firing a warning shot that happened to go into his head, because he popped his gum too loudly was acceptable, the murderers’ rationalization of their actions would not be humorous.
Two scenes really stand out to me in Chicago. One is “We Both Reached for the Gun,” when Billy and Roxie manipulate the press, who in turn manipulates the public, into believing her sob story about repentance and self-defense. The marionettes of the press and Roxie, all controlled by Flynn, perfectly shows how the obsession with celebrity allows people to believe whatever they want to be true. At the end of the performance to emphasize Flynn’s good nature he gulps down a glass of milk; it is the prohibition after all.
The other scene is “The Cell Block Tango.” Why is that? It is the most risqué number in the production, and seemingly the most morally problematic. The lyrics are a celebration of moral relativism and celebrity-worship carried to an extreme. As a result, I think it is the number that ties the entire musical together, reinforcing the major flaw of all the characters. If the purpose of life is to put on the best possible show by whatever possible means, then these murderers certainly have succeeded and are not wrong.
As dishonest and smooth talking Billy Flynn sings, “What if your hinges all are rusting? What if, in fact, you’re just disgusting? Razzle Dazzle them, and they’ll never catch wise.” Through Marshall’s quick and careful editing, the movie does catch wise, critiquing any worldview that places fame above all else.
Content Advisory: A semi-explicit sexual encounter, several highly suggestive dance sequences, skimpy costuming with partial nudity, some smoking, vulgarity, and brief violence. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A+