‘Chicago’ dances its way to Oscar buzz

I don’t really know what I’m talking about because I haven’t seen that many musicals, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “Chicago” is the best musical ever made. I haven’t had good experiences with musicals in the past; the last one I went to was “Stomp” at the Marine Memorial Theater in New York, which blew. It’s kind of unfair of me to say that because I didn’t see the whole thing, or even any of it, because before it started some a—hole behind me totally ruined the ending when he whispered to his girlfriend, “You know, contrary to popular belief, they don’t just stomp. At the end, I think they also bang broom handles and stuff.” So I left the theater and waited for my parents out in the lobby, where I read on plaques on the walls about how a generation of young Americans died at the hands of foreign oppressors so that I could enjoy plays such as “Stomp.”

Watching “Chicago” was much better because there is no way that anyone could have predicted the outcome of the movie, which is that I would end up thinking of Renée Zellweger as a decent actress. But Zellweger redeems herself in “Chicago” as do a number of other unfortunate actors, including Queen Latifah, who most people hated before they even knew who she was. In fact, I think that Richard Gere is the highlight of the film, which must be a treat for him because I sincerely doubt that Richard Gere is even the highlight of his own life.

For those like me who think that Bob Fosse is a derogatory epithet applied to Australians and couldn’t tell the difference between a ding-dong daddy and a two-bit johnnie to save his or her life, maybe I should say a word or two about the movie itself. In short, “Chicago” is another female prison movie classic in which the prison uniforms consist of garters and leotards and the sentence for every woman appears to be a lifetime of writhing seductively. However, the odd twist that makes this different from most similar male-fantasy movies is that the director of the film, Rob Marshall, is gay. But what Marshall learned from legendary choreographer Fosse, who brought “Chicago” to Broadway in 1975, is that sexiness is even sexier with a good story behind it. . .and sexier still with Lucy Liu and a gun.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, the member of the cast with the most musical theater experience, is passably good as Velma Kelly, the sultry jazz songstress who murders her sister for bonking her Romeo, while the less-musically inclined Zellweger outperforms her as Roxie Hart, the squeaky, fame-obsessed frail who whacks the mug with whom she was two-timing her meal ticket. In the role of said meal ticket is John Reilly, who plays the exact same character he played in “The Good Girl” and is proving himself to be really talented at being the most boring person in the universe. Queen Latifah is more interesting as the, um, voluptuous warden known as Mama, and, naturally, sings a disturbingly sexual song about food early in the movie. “Chicago” doesn’t really get going, however, until Richard Gere steps in as silver-tongued lawyer Billy Flynn and proves with his tap dancing skills, if nothing else, that the hamster story is true.

The best thing about “Chicago,” though, is the movie’s pacing. The edits are quick and clean and give the story a rhythm that keeps it lively and smooth. There is a tendency in many of today’s movies to insult the audience by dwelling on one particular aspect of the story in order to get some silly point across. I remember watching the film “XXX” and feeling like they spent a little too much time going over what was happening to Vin Deisel and what he was doing when I was really eager to see what would happen next, namely when the movie was over and I could get on with my life. Fortunately, “Chicago” doesn’t suffer from this problem and, if anything, the movie shows how much information can be conveyed in just a few seconds of screen time.

The musical numbers are fun too, particularly Zeta-Jones’ rendition of “All That Jazz,” which opens the movie. Still, I don’t recommend closing your eyes and listening to the music independent of the visuals, or buying the soundtrack for that matter, because while the songs are pleasantly unobtrusive when experienced in conjunction with the dancing, for some reason hearing the voices alone is like listening to an episode of “South Park” on tape, the effect of which is the desire to tear out the perpetrators’ tracheae with your teeth. And if that isn’t reason enough not to buy the soundtrack, I should tell you that Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim and Macy Gray perform a “Chicago” rap on it.

Though I’m sure that the film version of “Chicago” is a million times better on the stage, Marshall took advantage of his medium by including a number of cool tricks in the dance numbers that can only be done on film. Unlike the play, the movie is able to cut back and forth between the actual events of the story and the song-and-dance numbers that occur in Roxie’s imagination. In one such number, Zellweger appears against a black background and is joined by a host of mirror images of herself. In another, Richard Gere performs with a chorus of marionettes as he manipulates reporters at a press conference. Had Marshall neglected to adapt the play in a manner that suited the medium, “Chicago” could only have been described as being good as a musical and bad as a movie. Because of its innovative style, however, it is a great addition to both genres.