After nearly thirty-two continual years of football apathy, I decided that, this year, I was going to take Not Giving A Rat’s-Ass About The Superbowl to the whole next level. Instead of simply not watching the Big Game, I was going to seek out and engage in some activity that no true SuperBowl fan would even dream of undertaking.
So, last Sunday, I went to see Chicago.
(I later discovered that my father had trumped me by spending Sunday at — this is true — “The Superbowl of Poetry VI“. He’s always trying to one-up me, that dad o’ mine.)
I’ll admit to having a second motive as well. I will almost always go to see a movie in a cataegory that I fear is on the brink of extinction: Old Fashioned Murder Mysteries (Gosford Park), Animated Movies Made For Adult Audiences (Spirited Away), Contemporary Comedies That Don’t Involve Flatulence (drawing a blank, here), and the like. I often go into these films more out of a sense of duty than out of any expectation of quality. This often leads to disappointment (did I mention Gosford Park?), but can also lead to pleasant surprise when a movie turns out to be more than just a excellent example of a particular genre. Such is the case with Chicago, which went well beyond the realm of Great Musical into Damned Fine Motion Picture territory.
Based on a play of the same name, Chicago tells the tale of three publicity hounds living in an era when even double-homicide only earns you six minutes of fame. That’s bad news for those who make a living on the stage or aspire to one day make it big, because attracting and keeping the public’s attention has become a Herculean feat. Fortunately for Velma (Cathrine Zeta-Jones) and Roxy (Renee Zellweger), they have more than just their good-looks and long legs to keep them in the spotlight, they also have several counts of murder between them. And their efforts to dodge execution bring in yet another Fame Attractor, defense attorney Bill Flynn (Richard Gere) who is one-third lawyer and five-fourths showman.
Chicago is two movies, show in parallel. The bulk of the story unfolds on death row, where Velma and Roxy navigate prison life and dream of using their publicity as a springboard for superstardom. But the scenes advancing the plot alternate with song-and-dance numbers which take place in a vaudeville setting. When Roxy meets the prison matron (Queen Latifah), for example, we first see the wardeness laying out the law in harsh, spoken-language, but the scene then abruptly switches to a cabaret, where Latifah, now decked out in a sequined gown and singing on-stage to a crowded nightclub, belts out a showtune entitled “When You’re Good To Mamma, Mamma’s Good To You”. This very clever method of segregating the plot for the singing avoids what often annoys me the most about musicals — the premise that, in real life, people are prone to breaking out into arias in the middle of everyday situations.
Furthermore, everyone gets a song — this isn’t just the Gere, Zellweger, Zeta-Jones show. The ladies accompanying Velma and Roxy on death row get to tell their tales in “Cell Block Tango,” and even John C. Reilly gets to do a little soft-shoe. For a movie about folks jockeying for the limelight, Chicago does an admirable job of making sure no one actor dominates.
Throughout most of 2002 (until Das Experiment, anyway) I was bitchin’ and moanin’ about how few good movies I had seen that year. Now here we are, less than a month into 2003, and I’ve already seen two that would have made last year’s Top Five list. Having gone to see Chicago just to avoid watching football, I certainly hadn’t expected to enjoy myself to such a degree, but I can’t deny that I came out of the theater feeling more energized and elated than I have after any movie in recent memory. Indeed, it looks as though I have no choice but to describe Chicago with the most unSuperBowlie of superlatives: absolutely fabulous.