" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

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A slew of great movies were released this month, but few have been as fun as Chicago.

All That Jazz

Renee Zellweger gets off in ChicagoChicago is the film version of the stage musical that rose to popularity with a revival tour in the ’90s. The stage musical came from Bob Fosse, best known to movie lovers for directing Cabaret and his semi-autobiographical All That Jazz. In fact, the first musical number in Chicago is “All That Jazz,” sung with gusto by Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Chicago has a distinctive look compared to other musicals. If you’ve seen Cabaret or All That Jazz, you’ll recognize it. Director Rob Marshall uses spotlights and shadows to suggest a giant Broadway stage. The Prohibition-era setting recalls grand days of glitz and glamor in the speakeasies of the city. Unlike the MGM musicals (or Moulin Rouge, for that matter), Marshall uses a subdued color palette, except for the sparkling lights during the musical numbers.

Chicago tells about the fall and rise of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a young woman who dreams of being a big stage singer. She is arrested after killing her lover in a fit of anger. With the help of a brilliant, dishonest lawyer (Richard Gere), Roxie plays on the sympathies of the jury and the media to win a “not guilty.” The punchline is that her notoriety earns her the fame her talent couldn’t.

Fun at the Movies

Although there are some very good movies at theaters just now, Chicago may beat them in terms of sheer fun.

For one thing, it’s fun to see movie stars — who almost never get to sing and dance — sing and dance. Everyone in the cast is very good. A ventriloquism number shows Gere and Zellweger have a penchant for basic dance. John C. Reilly (playing his third cuckold this year) does a soft-shoe number. And Catherine Zeta-Jones and Zellweger blow us away with tuneful and kinetic numbers, although I suspect both may have used body doubles in some of the wide shots.

There’s also the naughty, racy tone to the movie. Chicago is set during Prohibition; it opens in a night club and continues in a courtroom. Even at the scene of a murder, cops are joking about the suspect’s infidelity. In the prison women sing “he had it comin’” and “he just can’t hold his arsenic.” The courtroom is merely a stage, and Gere, the lawyer, observes “in this town, murder is a form of entertainment.”

The fun corruption of morals allows for some wonderful, larger-than-life characters. The ever-smirking Gere, the slick lawyer who can mold jurors and the media like putty, says he could have gotten Jesus off, had he been convicted in Chicago. Rapper Queen Latifah plays a prison guard who sees herself as a queen, granting favors to inmates or making their lives hell, depending on her whims.

Golden Age

They don’t make them like this anymore. But with Moulin Rouge last year, and 8 Women and Chicago this year, maybe we’re in for another golden age of musicals.

Unless you simply don’t like Fosse’s style or you can’t stand the subject matter, Chicago is about as flawless as movies come. Here’s hoping the success of Chicago will bring about more musicals for 2003.