Chicago is an unconventional musical about a young woman standing trial for murder. She longs to be a showgirl, and her rich fantasy life re-envisions the people and circumstances around her as a glitzy jazz-era musical performance.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Pianist. In addition to Best Picture, Chicago also won Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Zeta-Jones); Best Art Direction - Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Editing; and Best Sound.
I originally saw Chicago in the theater shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced. In my review at the time, I found the musical refreshing, a welcome change from the traditional musical. Upon a second viewing, however, I can see why some contemporary critics faulted it for failing to create sympathy for its characters.
Underneath the story of a murderess fighting for her life, Chicago is a thinly-veiled critique of show business and the lust for fame. The main character, Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is a would-be showgirl who finds the fame as a defendant that she lacked as a performer. Vapid and selfish, she "stars" in a flashy stage show in her internal world. Just as deplorable is Velma (Zeta-Jones), another murder defendant who is jealous of the new girl, stealing away the press.
As a hot-shot defense lawyer, Gere "razzle dazzles" the jury with his own ventriloquist/tap dance act. Again, this serves as an indictment both of showbiz impresarios who push the latest star and real-life defense lawyers who use their clients' cases to win their own fame.
The only truly sympathetic character is the gullible Amos Hart (John C. Reilly), husband of Roxie who stands by her in court. He captures the viewer's heart with his rendition of "Mr. Cellophane" as a Vaudevillian Al Jolson-type song.
If anything, the themes of Chicago are more relevant today than they were in 2002. Reality TV was just in its infancy at the time, with shows like Survivor and American Idol just beginning their reigns as two of television's top shows. Of course, Andy Warhol had already famously predicted that "in the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame," but in the early part of the millennium, it was just beginning to become a reality... TV. Today, more than ever, we can see Roxie's rise to tabloid fame as equivalent with the Kardashians and Snookis of our day. No wonder the musical has little sympathy for her and her plight.
In a musical about shallow characters, the staging must, of course, be brilliant. And it was. It is no surprise the film took home so many Oscars for the skills that converted a dreary prison into a sequined stage show. That Zeta-Jones also won a supporting actress statuette is a credit to her skill as an actress. Even in a non-sympathetic role, she was capable of showing a depth of character that made her role scintillate.
At the time, I didn't predict that Chicago would prevail against its competition, especially against an historical epic such as Gangs of New York. I suspect that had a lot to do with the zeitgeist of 2002. Only a year removed from the tragedy of 9/11, the Academy perhaps wanted to focus on escapism rather than darkness. If so, Chicago is the perfect film: offering up both an indictment of instant fame and a dazzling paean to it.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5 stars)
Escapism is only growing in appeal in the new decade of this millennium.