IT STARTED OUT as a real 1924 tabloid scandal—two women who killed their men and became jailhouse celebrities—then a 1926 play, a 1927 silent movie, a 1942 talkie, and a 1975 Broadway hit by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse (revived in 1996 and still playing today). Fosse died while trying to make his show into a film; since then, we almost had to sit through a big-screen Chicago starring Liza Minnelli, Goldie Hawn, Rosie O'Donnell, and (aiee! Get thee behind me!) Madonna. Given the near-extinction of the movie-musical genre and the squirm-inducing archness of the fossil Moulin Rouge, this Chicago seemed certain to be Harvey Weinstein's wackiest folly yet. Ren饠Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as vaudevillian singer-dancers—oh, right, that'll happen!
But boy, did they make it happen. Chicago (which opens Friday, Dec. 27, at Guild 45 and Pacific Place) is a high-octane gas, a 1920s period piece as alive as your next breath, a death-defying leap from stage to screen. Who knew Richard Gere started out as a singing hoofer before he was an actor? Where was Zeta-Jones stashing all that smoldering old-time razzle-dazzle? And how on earth did Zellweger go from Bridget Jones' karaoke scene to production number after production number revealing a thin but perfectly serviceable talent for showstopping, spotlight-hogging song and dance?
Zellweger's character, Roxie Hart, haunts the theater yearning to be her idol, vaudeville queen Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones). When Roxie's boyfriend, who's supposed to be arranging her big break, turns out to be a fraud, she puts a bullet in him. Velma does the same when she discovers her mister is schtupping her own sister. As the trial unfolds, they use their criminal notoriety to compete for publicity.
There isn't a clinker performance in the lot: Gere as the girls' slime-slick grandstanding lawyer (he was born to be this smug); John C. Reilly as Roxie's milquetoast chump husband; Queen Latifah as the warden who also arranges for the girls to cash in on tabloid stardom with star turns onstage. When Gere's lawyer stages a press conference with Zellweger as his ventriloquist's dummy mouthing "We both reached for the gun," his snappy cynicism and her rosebud lips sell the scene brilliantly. Zellweger also daringly pulls off a (rather anachronistic) Marilyn Monroe homage number. We always knew she could do wallflower; now she can flaunt her sex as a weapon of mass seduction.
Action doesn't alternate with song; it's one smooth unit of entertainment, thanks to the clever solution concocted by Bill Condon (of Gods and Monsters, my personal screenwriting god) and Rob Marshall (the less godlike director, but we'll get to that). They make most of the songs fantasies in the pretty little homicidal head of Roxie. And the songs are just wonderful: Zeta-Jones' slow-burning "All That Jazz"; Latifah's Pearl Bailey-esque "When You're Good to Mama (Mama's Good to You)"; even the barely singing, barely dancing Reilly's quite effectively affecting "Mr. Cellophane" (about the way everybody looks right through him).
I salaam to the eye-popping sets and costumes by John Myhre and Colleen Atwood. But someone must have put Benzedrine in director Marshall's Ovaltine: His framing and cuts chop up the choreography, and I kept wanting to grab the sides of the screen and pull myself in so I could catch the whole stage act at once, not just the bits he chose to show. You don't need to amp up Fosse: He's vulgar and speedy to begin with. Still, after Moulin Rouge's amphetamine antics, Chicago is like a mug of Good Earth chamomile tea. It's a high-wire act energized by its stars' amazement at their own reckless effrontery, a brash blast, and an original sight in a cinema cancerous with cautious recyclings. I want to go see it again right now.