Sometimes in doing these retrospectives, ten years seems like no time at all. At other times, it seems like forever. Here is what Catherine Zeta-Jones has done since nabbing an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Chicago: voice work in Sinbad, Intolerable Cruelty, two tepid franchise sequels (Zorro; Oceans Twelve), No Reservations. Renee Zellweger followed up what seemed to be a breakout role with a lauded performance in Cold Mountain, but her last three films have been Case 39, Monsters vs. Aliens, and My One and Only. Rob Marshall became one of those trivia question directors who didn’t win his own award despite helming a Best Picture (the director’s statue that year went to Roman Polanski for The Pianist). His last two films have been a lackluster entry into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the critically unappreciated Nine.
I’m not saying Chicago was cursed, but it is really strange to watch the film in retrospect and think that the person who was about to have arguably the most interesting decade was Dominic West, the closest thing to a lead in the best television series of the decade–and arguably of all time–The Wire.
As I revisited Chicago, I kept looking for signs of why that happened…or that it was going to happen. How does a film go from being the most celebrated piece of the year to a “gone tomorrow/what have you done for me lately” curiosity? Was it simply a weak year at the Oscars? (Possibly.) Was the appreciation for the film really just a sort of final homage to Bob Fosse whose All that Jazz missed out on most of the major awards when it was nominated? (Maybe, though the famous choreographer had been dead for over a decade.) Was Hollywood just bound and determined to honor a musical after the previous year’s Moulin Rouge got shut out in all the major categories? (I doubt it, but if one reads enough stories about how “the musical is back!” it could have an effect.)
For whatever the reason, Chicago now looks and feels like a swan song rather than a harbinger of things to come. Complain all you want about how formulaic Hollywood is (or can be), there is something quixotic, unpredictable, and mysterious about how the stars align to make a hit.
What I Said Then
Chicago’s strength is also its weakness—or at least its limitation. The things that are good about Rob Marshall’s realization of the Bob Fosse musical are its boundless energy and its enthusiasm for glamour, glitz, and show-biz. Yet the lack of any deeper meaning also kept the film from bowling me over. It wasn’t so much an energetic or enthusiastic portrayal of a theme as it was a film about the importance of energy and enthusiasm mattering more than substance. Chicago was an entertainment piece, and it was (or seemed) unapologetic about what it is. And here’s the rub: it was entertaining. The music, choreography, costumes, and performances were all much, much better than last year’s flat and facile Moulin Rouge. Like its predecessor, however, it has only the barest bones of a story and doesn’t really see that as a fault. Roxie Hart’s murder trial is really just a pretext to move us from one set-piece to the next. The fact that those set- pieces are highly polished makes the film eminently watchable. The fact that those set-pieces were, in fact, the whole movie, makes it eminently forgettable. Can I recommend it? Sure. Do I think it was the best movie of the year? Not really.
What I Say Now
I have been watching Smash on network television and think it is dishy, catty fun. I thought maybe that show had fanned into flame a nostalgia for theater and theater pieces. Chicago feels too processed, however. It lacks the crackling energy that comes from live performance. The set pieces all look like stage performances, but one wonders how many takes were done. There is something that is actually a little boring, a little sterile about the over-polished perfection of the film musical. Watching someone live, on-stage, one feels anything can happen. Watching a film, one knows that you are only seeing the last, best take.
It was also odd to me how many of my reactions to particular numbers were identical over a ten-year span. Queen Latifah’s “When You’re Good to Mama” starts out so strong you keep waiting for it to turn into a show stopper but it never lifts higher than its initial burst of energy. John C. Reilly’s “Mister Cellophane” is probably a necessary lull to give stage actors a breather but saps all the energy out of a story that has already stalled. A decade ago I said that the film was front-loaded, with most all the best material–“And All That Jazz”; “Cell Block Tango”–at or near the beginning. Even the ways in which the chorus choreographed around Richard Gere had an “oh, yeah, I remember” kind of quality to it.
The Final Word
I gave Chicago an “A-” in my original review. That grade seems defensible, though it is at odds with the muted nature of my comments. I see from my end of year list that I did not see Chicago in its initial release, meaning by the time I did, Oscar buzz was already underway. Above all else, the film wasn’t Moulin Rouge (to mention that film for the third time in a review about Chicago seems like I have an ax to grind, I know) which probably made me anxious to defend it as a means of justifying my dislike of the previous year’s musical.
I can’t say that Chicago is a bad film. At no point while watching it do I ever feel like I’m not getting my money’s worth, but…
I grew up watching Singing in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and there are scenes in both I have seen scores of times. If I’m flipping channels and see one playing on Turner Classic Movies, I can’t help but stay through “Next to Lovin’ I like Fightin” or “Good Morning.” I suppose for a day or two after watching Chicago I found myself humming “He had it coming, he had it coming…” but after the second day it was gone, and if I were flipping through the channels and saw it playing on cable I would probably keep on clicking until I found a rerun of Law and Order or something.