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(2002) *** 1/2 Pg-13
108 min. Miramax. Director: Rob Marshall. Cast: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly.

After the overwrought excess of Baz Luhrmann's redefinition of the movie musical (Moulin Rouge), the mere freneticism of Miramax's adaptation of Chicago comes as a breath of fresh air. Chicago may try a bit too hard with its quick cutting, swooping camera, and restless rhythm, but I'm not looking this Christmas gift horse in the mouth.

Chicago marks a big-screen breakthrough for celebrated purveyors of small-screen musicals and biopics. Executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron squeeze in among the Weinsteins, bringing Rob Marshall, the first-time film director whose first and only TV directing gig was Zadan and Meron's popular Annie telefilm. Marshall has the advantage of being a career choreographer and fills that role again here (albeit in the shadow of original choreographer Bob Fosse). Zadan, Meron, Marshall, and company bring to the table a baldly confident, visually dynamic take on a popular musical, which is respectful without being reverent.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is sassy (check) and brassy (check) as showgirl-killer Velma Kelly, and a lean and mean (check, check) Renee Zellweger plays Roxie Hart, the mouse who roared her way to a similar criminal fame. The archetypal title character--circa the twenties--lends seedy urbanity to the proceedings, largely embodied by Richard Gere's singin'-dancin' lawyer Billy Flynn. By this late date, any substance in Chicago has long since lost the race to style, but the Kander-Ebb songs still pack pizazz.

From the beginning, Marshall breaks the period mood with sleek, modernistic stage choreography (seemingly, a definitive screen version would more slavishly adhere to the Fosse style--"All That Jazz," while juiced-up, lacks a certain control of "stage picture"). The result of the modern touches is a sort-of 20s for Dummies cartoon, but an entertaining one.

Creatively blending the theatre and stage disciplines, Marshall makes clever use of split screen to approximate split-stage spotlighting, but overuses the conceit of intercutting. Marshall successfully juxtaposes sad-sack husband John C. Reilly's "Mr. Cellophane" with Reilly's see-through meeting with Gere, but intercutting "All That Jazz" with a pumping sex scene (while not inappropriate) blunts the performance of the number to make a rather obvious point. Such conflation contrasts to the film's occasional redundancy, when Bill Condon's script plays out a point in scene and song, successively.

The cast fuels this performer's showcase, and Marshall gets mesmerizing results from a cast mostly unknown as singer-dancers. Gere comically thins his voice into a tinny, phonographic tenor, which passes, but by the time he becomes a bit more full-throated, first impressions have taken root. Reilly (evoking a young Karl Malden) proves he can get away with anything, even a warbled softshoe routine, and Queen Latifah makes a strong, showstopping case for herself as the next Nell Carter. An underused Taye Diggs lends charismatic menace to the ephemeral part of the bandleader.

The show and the musical, though, belong to the double-team of Kelly and Hart. Zeta-Jones is a force of nature, gleefully proving she's had this in her all along, while Zellweger manages to recycle herself yet again, like her character (at one point, Marshall convincingly dolls her up as a proto-Marilyn Monroe). In a nice tip of the hat, original Broadway star Chita Rivera also appears, looking like an apparition of Marlene Dietrich.

Chicago isn't the second coming of anything, but it is an emininently watchable song-and-dance extravaganza, so all but Broadway nitpickers should be able to enjoy (on a cheap ticket, no less) a musical in a movie theatre once more.

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