Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following last week's second installment (2004's "Mean Girls"), I now present ~
Chicago 2002 / Dir: Rob Marshall
SYNOPSIS: Based on the 1975 Broadway musical, "Chicago" is the story of two prohibition-era murderesses - Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a showgirl who killed her cheating husband and sister, and Roxie (Renee Zellweger), an aspiring entertainer who killed her boyfriend because he lied about getting her a gig. Fearing that they will be hanged for their crimes, the two ladies vie for the attention of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a slick and hitherto undefeated defense lawyer who specializes in distressed damsels.
Of all my favorite Bitchfest films, I am most embarrassed about "Chicago". Perhaps it's because it stars people like Zellweger* and Gere, but more so, I think it's because the movie isn't nearly as good on the "small" screen. I believe I watched that hotly anticipated DVD once before I sold it. I caught it on TV another time and flipped back and forth between it and another show. Based on those weak responses, I'd assume that my initial reaction to the film had been tainted by an unusually good mood, but I actually saw it four times in the theater.
When I went to my first viewing, we had to wait in line outside the theater door while the previous screening finished. As the audience members emerged, I noticed a particularly jubilant middle aged man and his wife. Both were beaming, but he had tears rolling down his face. He turned to me and said, "You're gonna love it!" He was not only correct, his physical reaction predicted my own. Aside from "Singin' in the Rain" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", I don't think I've ever been more entertained while sitting inside a movie theater. Guess I have a thing for musicals...
And as musicals go, this one has the perfect balance of story, humor and catchy, addictive songs. Immersing oneself in it - which really does require a theater - is an exhilarating experience. And it turns out that a good musical doesn't require complex character development. As Bitchfest stories go, this one is awfully shallow. Every lady is a "bad girl" which implies that "good girls" simply can't make it in show business. What's interesting about this tale from an audience member's point of view is that even though Velma and Roxie aren't particularly likable, you're nevertheless glad to see them win in the end. Part of the reason is that, although they suck as people, the men that they offed were actually worse. This simple ploy to keep you rooting for the heroines is fleshed out in the "Cell Block Tango" number, during which several other murderesses (all clad in black lingerie; it makes sense but I can't explain why) recount how and why they wound up killing their no-good lovers. As the song reaches its inevitable crescendo and key change, the ladies harmonize with the words "The dirty bum, bum, bum!" These irresistible, old-timey touches make you cheer for these vixens just as you'd cheer for a Cagney villain.
It's difficult to choose sides in the Roxie vs. Velma rivalry, but ultimately it doesn't matter as they are equally ruthless and thus equally successful in the end. Surprisingly, Gere's Mr. Flynn might be the most likable character. I don't know why I have such a bad feeling about Gere (I blame "Pretty Woman" more than the gerbil legend), but he redeemed himself with this role. I'm a sucker for the slippery, silver-tongued Irishman stereotype and he hits the mark. He effortlessly bounces between boyish grins and withering glances (the former for the press and the jury, the latter for his dim clients). He plays a classic Bitchfest male role, the manipulator who can't be baited, and he even gets his own number - the all-lies "All I Care About is Love". Dressed in shirtsleeves, suspenders and a newsboy cap, Gere croons with a hint of a brogue, "I don't care about expensive things/ Cashmere coats, or diamond rings / Don't mean a thing / All I care about is love" as the camera cuts to shots of Billy dressed in his usual finery, scoffing at Roxie as she attempts to seduce him in lieu of paying him. His portrayal is reminiscent of Cary Grant's Walter Burns; a callous jerk, yes, but he's no sap.
Other highlights include: John C. Reilly as Roxie's hapless, cuckolded husband and his rendition of "Mr. Cellophane"; Queen Latifah as scheming prison "mom" Matron Morton and her rendition of "When You're Good to Mama"; and most of all, Ms. Zeta-Jones's pace-setting performance of the opening number, "All That Jazz", which has to be one of the five all-time best show tunes. When she belts the penultimate line, "No, I'm no one's wife / But, oh, I love my life!" she not only earned her Oscar but also prompted a male friend of mine to say, "She's hot. I'm gay and I would do her."
Some of my other musical theater friends hated the movie, claiming that its best aspects were mere shadows of much better Broadway productions. I guess that "Chicago" just happens to be based on an already excellent musical with a fun, mean-spirited storyline and cool period costumes. I have no doubt that there have been and will be superior staged versions, but I've never had the cash or means to attend one of those. I will someday. In the meantime, I would gladly pay standard movie theater admission price if I ever got a chance to see this on a big screen again. I know it would be money well spent.
Tune in for the next installment, 2010's "Black Swan"
*Okay, I admit that I kinda love Renee Zellweger, if only for her perfect performance in "Bridget Jones's Diary". She did, however, aid and abet the crime that was "Jerry McGuire"; that "You complete me" garbage was an unforgivable disservice to all non-sociopaths everywhere.