catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 5 :: 2003.02.28 — 2003.03.13


Chicago gives the ol' razzle dazzle


is about two women who are jailed for murder. To talk about the meat of this movie, I have to refer to a line near the end and allude to certain plot elements along the way; if you want it all to be unexpected, you’ll want to read this review after you’ve seen the movie. If you already know the basic plot or don’t mind fewer surprises, read on. Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), half of a popular sister act, shoots her husband and co-star when she catches them doing acrobatics together. Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), who aspires to Velma Kelly fame, kills her own faithless lover. They both await trial and vie for the attentions of a hotshot attorney (Richard Gere) and the protection of the prison matron (Queen Latifah). All the actors do a convincing job singing and dancing, which was more surprising in some than others.

The movie is based on the 1970s Broadway musical (recently revived), which followed a 1942 movie comedy and a 1926 play, all of which derived from the story of the true Roxie Hart, who did indeed use a slick lawyer to grease her way through a trial. This film version does a wonderful job with the musical and dance elements by staging them as Roxie’s own machinations of mind. Her inner world is a vaudeville stage where she’s the star and all the people in her life are playing their own entertaining parts. What you can do in a movie that’s impossible on a stage is to juxtapose the performing characters in their stage makeup and costumes (or lack of—underwear is a favorite choice of raiment) with shots of the characters in real life, such as in their prison garb shuffling cards or in a suit waiting in a lawyer’s office. As the performers whirl across the stage and deliver their solos, what their character is doing in real life offers contrast, sometimes craftily ironic. For instance, Richard Gere’s character, Billy Flynn, sings a heartfelt “Keep your money . . . All I care about is love,” dressed as a shoeshine boy and surrounded by beautiful girls, while his true-life lawyer self gets measured for a custom suit, snaps at his staff, and spurns poor clients.

The movie is filled with humor, but it’s mostly an uneasy sort. The clever lyrics make you want to laugh; what they’re talking about makes you cringe. This ranges from the catchy “All That Jazz,” where you want to sing and dance along to “I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down,” and then you think, first of all, about why you’d want pink knees, but secondly, that this sparkling ditty is recommending moral abandonment and is being sung by a murderess. Then “The Cell-Block Tango,” for instance, details how the six women on death row offed their lovers (or sister, too, in the case of Velma Kelly). The descriptions are witty and fast-paced and interwoven with mesmerizing dance moves. One wife couldn’t stand her husband’s gum-smacking and “fired two warning shots … into his head”; another found out her boyfriend was currently married—to several other women. And, of course, Velma and Roxie’s stories we already know.

Roxie’s murder of her lover, Fred, was played straight earlier in the film. In that scene, Roxie learns Fred has lied about talking to a nightclub owner about putting Roxie on stage. When Roxie confronts him, Fred callously dismisses her distress, saying she was worth getting into bed but now the fun’s over. When she turns clingy and pleading, Fred flings her against the wall. I was firmly on Roxie’s side as she slid down, shocked and pitiful, crying, “You lied to me. You lied to me.” As an audience member, I was thinking, “What a creep this Fred guy is! Come on, Roxie, don’t just whine; stick it to ’im!” And then she pulls out a gun and shoots him in the chest. My first reaction was an uncomfortable mix of horror over Roxie’s immoral and illegal revenge, but also satisfaction that this jerk had gotten what was coming to him, and that he knew, right before he died, that he had done wrong and was paying for his misdeeds.

So when “The Cell-Block Tango” murderesses croon persuasively, “He had it coming. He only had himself to blame. If you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same,” and insist that “it was a murder but not a crime,” it’s hard to remember whose side you’re on. Such sentiments speak to that very human desire for justice, and to the desire to forcibly create justice if none is to be found. This is why God has to spell it out: “‘It is mine to avenge. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” That’s why in his Law he laid out finite punishments for crimes—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—to prevent reckless escalation of retaliation. That’s why Jesus’ revisions to turn the other cheek, to give double what is demanded, still seem so radical and bizarre.

Chicago confuses our sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and then it goes even further. At the end, Roxie thanks the audience at her show. “We couldn’t have done it without you!” she enthuses. In one sense, she’s talking to the 1920s vaudeville crowd whose money is financing her dreams, made possible by her notoriety for having killed someone. The crowd is there precisely because she’s a scandal, and they applaud and pay her, thereby endorsing her crime, indirectly.

But the line is also, presumably, to this movie audience. We, too, paid money to see a show about a murderess, and we’re enjoying the whole song and dance.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Are we supposed to be disgusted with ourselves, shrug our shoulders and say, "That’s how it goes?? Are we supposed to give in gladly (or resignedly or thoughtfully) to the sensationalistic bent of human nature? That would be the same human nature that brought medieval crowds to burnings and modern crowds to glue themselves in front of a TV and watch a white Bronco SUV in flight from a cortege of police cars. I’m not even sure Chicago is trying to get us, after the fact, not to revel in gore and human failings; after all, the movie as a whole is mostly upbeat and, yes, entertaining. I doubt the studio wants us to demand our money back.

Whatever the message, humans will keep paying to be entertained. As Roxie coos in one of her performance daydreams: “I love the audience. And the audience loves me for loving them. And I love them for loving me. And we just love each other. That’s because none of us got any love in our childhood. . . . And that’s show biz, kid.” And Billy sings, “Give ’em the old razzle dazzle. . . . How can they see with sequins in their eyes? . . . How can they hear the truth above the roar?” There’s Chicago for you—with very little love and a twisting of truth, it’s disturbing and funny and feather-light. That’s show biz, kid.

This review was originally published on The Film Forum, a Christian movie commentary site.

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