Chicago ought to have been directed by Fritz Lang, which would have made it Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend. Marshall has one trick up his sleeve, like the raising of Lazarus. He unclasps Renée Zellweger from her rock and makes the mollusk dance. It’s like watching Molly Ringwald fly. He can’t do anything about her acting, which is a soulless “ya gotta love me, I gotta contract” imitation of Shirley MacLaine, with a touch of Wendy Hiller in the makeup also, but who cares? She walks on lifted hands, it’s a miracle.
The Broadway musical take place in New York, representing Oklahoma or the Alps or Chicago’s past with a minimum of suggestion. The tension of the conceit is what makes for the excitement of the piece. “This is Illyria, lady.” It’s notoriously difficult to translate the stage musical into a film, and there are many different approaches. Marshall shows the work has some genius and is probably a masterpiece by using a technique adapted and analyzed from Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven. It gives a sense of cinematic resources brought into play definitely, if not definitively.
Catherine Zeta-Jones has a talent for missing the directorial chance, without turning it into an occasion for non-performance and a tidy living. Her dancing is hardly less impressive than Zellweger’s, and but for a tendency to introduce a New Broadway bleat into her singing (this is coached—Zellweger and Richard Gere also have it), there isn’t much to criticize. Again, who cares, but for a different reason. Her Queen Catherine appeared to show a depth of influence from (if not actual study with) Nicol Williamson. Her American characterizations are genuine and inevitable. A technique and style are at work, so that singing and dancing aren’t the shock they might be, yet they’re prodigious in their own right, and again, Marshall takes the cake.
Richard Gere brings to mind the story of the duo-pianists who perfected a reading of Boulezian aleatory which they stolidly repeated ad infinitum like Broadway actors in this latter day, because he gives an acting lesson in his two-shots anyone might profit from. His singing is characteristically expressive as well, except as noted (I remember an excellent clarinetist in a Weber concerto sunnily noodling until a single goose-note turned him pale and then red momentarily, but Toscanini understood tradition).
To hold Lang’s coat is a job for Godard, it’s enough to have a sense of what Fosse and Kander and Ebb put together, an intimate, hilarious work with harrowing insight into certain matters very much to the point, a night in the theater.