Since the last first-rate musical is beyond the reach of memory for many moviegoers, the arrival of Chicago is the most gratifying of Christmas gifts. It’s a tough-edged, uproarious picture with a gorgeous dark gleam and some of the most wittily conceived numbers ever put on screen — about a dozen of them. And though it seems hardly possible, the director-choreographer, Rob Marshall, has never made a feature film before. He comes to the movies from the Broadway stage, via the small screen (he helmed the 1999 TV adaptation of Annie).
The material, though, has a pedigree. Maurine Watkins wrote the original play in 1926, a hard-boiled comedy about a jazz baby who plugs her departing lover and goes on trial for murder. Watkins sends up the justice system and the press, but her chief theme is the lure of celebrity: if Roxie Hart can hold the front page long enough, she’s sure to maintain Chicago’s proud judicial tradition — no woman has ever been executed there. William Wellman did a memorable movie, Roxie Hart, in 1942 (with Ginger Rogers in the title role), and then the play vanished from the boards for more than three decades, until Bob Fosse resurrected it. Those of us lucky enough to have seen his production, with songs by Kander and Ebb that stand comparison with their Cabaret score, can still remember Jerry Orbach as Roxie’s grandstanding lawyer, Billy Flynn, transforming himself into Clarence Darrow for his big courtroom number, "Razzle Dazzle."
Marshall’s movie was inspired by the recent tip-top Broadway revival, but it’s a valentine to Fosse. The intercutting of the songs and dances with the plot, providing a breezy Brechtian commentary on the action and the characters, extends the use of the musical sequences in Cabaret. When John C. Reilly as Roxie’s credulous hubby, Amos, is interviewed by Billy (a relaxed — and surprisingly light-footed — Richard Gere) and Marshall cuts between the shyster’s dismissal of Amos and Reilly’s touching sad-sack burlesque turn, "Mr. Cellophane," you’re in movie-musical heaven. (Martin Walsh edited.) Marshall quotes from Pennies from Heaven, too (Gere’s striptease in "All I Really Need Is Love" is a nod to Christopher Walken as the tap-dancing pimp), and Gold Diggers of 1933 and Jailhouse Rock (together, in the knockout "Cell Block Tango" sextet, where Roxie’s jailmates sing the stories of the homicides that landed them in the clink). But Chicago isn’t just a skillful collage of other directors’ ideas. The tonal shifts in "Nowadays," the finale, which starts as a torch song for a faded Roxie and metamorphoses into a joyous duet with her prison rival, Velma Kelly, are Marshall’s own.
"Nowadays" begins as RenŽe Zellweger’s big number — that is, one of them. I’ve always liked this actress, but I had no idea how far she could take her kewpie-doll sexiness or how sensationally she could put across a song. Her Roxie suggests cotton candy with a bourbon chaser. It’s a remarkably canny musical-comedy performance — I’d say an unforgettable one. And she heads a cast without a single dim bulb. In addition to Gere and Reilly, there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones in razor-cut bangs as Velma, whose arrest for double murder sets the picture in spin, and a raucous Queen Latifah as the sharp-eyed prison matron, and Christine Baranski as the sob sister Mary Sunshine, who delivers bathos to her radio audience with glittering irony. In the press-conference number, "We Both Reached for the Gun," where Roxie mouths an invented narrative while Billy plays ventriloquist, Baranski winds up as one of the dummies dancing at Billy’s pleasure. And Queen Latifah gets her own showstopper, Apollo Theatre style.
Dion Beebe lit John Myhre’s production design, and the sleek costumes are by Colleen Atwood. Like everyone else involved in the project, these artists appear to be working at the height of their talents. And Bill Condon’s script, which moves closer to Watkins’s juiced-up dialogue than the stage musical did, showcases both the cast and the Kander-Ebb songs, the best of which are astonishingly funny. "Let’s all stroke together/Like a Princeton crew," Queen Latifah’s Mama Morton sings in her tribute to the fine art of greasing, where sex is a metaphor for mutual back scratching. Chicago is a great movie musical.