From the whores in "Sweet Charity" singing "Hey Big Spender" for their hapless johns to Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey pulling out all the stops for their Nazi patrons in the final scene of "Cabaret" to the squalid death of Playboy pin-up Dorothy Stratton in "Star 80," Fosse really had only one topic in his movie work: that life is all show-business in one way or another, and that showbiz is a great, brassy and gilded lie. It's a shopworn idea when you peel it apart, but what made his films seem fresh and daring was the combination of Fosse's ruthless obsession with his subject, his amazing skills as a dance choreographer and his fluid, syncopated use of camera and editing. In 1973, Fosse received an Academy Award for directing the film version of "Cabaret," a Tony for directing "Pippin," and an Emmy for directing the TV variety program "Liza with a Z." He remains the only director to win all three major entertainment industry prizes in a single year.
Fosse's ghost is present once more in the movie version of "Chicago," although in unexpected ways. Based on the hugely successful 1997 revival of Fosse's relatively unsuccessful 1975 stage-show, "Chicago" tells the story of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a celebrated jazz-age murderess, and her unscrupulous and publicity-seeking attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). In a headline-grabbing arrest and trial that out O.J.s O.J. Simpson, Roxie becomes the "It" girl of the Illinois penitentiary circuit. Roxie's is a role she can only maintain by consistently upstaging chorine killing femme fatale Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a showgirl who has recently terminated her sister act (and her sister) with extreme prejudice. "Chicago" offers a glibly amoral set-up for typically acrid Fosse-esque social commentary, with a women's cell block transformed into a proscenium from which murder, hypocrisy, celebrity and deceit are served up and sent up to the toe-tapping tunes of John Kander and Fred Ebb's great and frequently show-stopping Broadway score.
The surprising thing about the new movie version of "Chicago" is that it owes almost as much to the nonmusical 1942 Ginger Rogers/Adolph Menjou vehicle "Roxie Hart" as it does to Fosse's stage play. In an act of cheerful chutzpah, director Rob Marshall (his most pertinent prior credit is as director/choreographer of the TV movie version of "Annie") and screenwriter Bill Condon have freely adapted the book Fosse co-authored to create a movie that if anything is even more cynical than Fosse's show. Although he presumably had access to the Fosse choreography so lovingly recreated by Ann Reinking and Bebe Nuewirth for the '97 revival, Marshall has seen fit to go his own way in the dance department too, and while his choreography is at times notably Fosse-esque (but then, every modern choreographer reflects Fosse's influence), it is all uniquely Marshall's own.
Weirdly, it's in the filmmaking and the general tone rather than the dance numbers that Fosse's contribution lurks. Marshall shoots many of his sequences as if they came straight out of a lost reel of "All That Jazz" or "Cabaret," using Fosse-esque angles and cutting to energize the often rather second-rate hoofing of his principals. Fosse himself resorted to non-dancers in his movie musicals (most notably Roy Scheider in "All That Jazz") but he obviously preferred working with actors like Shirley Maclaine, Liza Minnelli and Ann Reinking, who could both say the words and embody the syncopated athleticism that was his hallmark as a choreographer.
Though it should be said that Billy Flynn didn't dance much onstage, the three numbers Richard Gere is featured in here seem staged in part to allow him to sit as much as possible. As a dancer, Renee Zellweger is undeniably flexible but not much more. While a good deal of publicity has been created about Catherine Zeta-Jones' supposed background as a musical performer, there's a reason why she succeeded as an actress rather than a showgirl. She hits her marks competently, looks great in the period outfits, and has a hell of a good time belting out her vocals, but the extra spark a truly great dancer might have brought to Velma is largely lacking.
Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly are the surprise standouts in the company here, Latifah for her full-throated singing in a style about as far away from rap as can be imagined, and Reilly for the quintessential version of the nebbish character he's been perfecting since "Boogie Nights." As Roxie's sap of a husband, Reilly seems to evaporate as we look at him, which makes his big number, the little man's lament "Mr. Cellophane," easily the most touching moment in an otherwise intentionally heartless show.
Along with Fosse's own "All That Jazz," "Chicago" is about as callously entertaining a screen musical as will ever be created. While the film is not quite up to Fosse's own high standard, director Marshall should be complimented for treating what may be Fosse's greatest Broadway achievement like raw material instead of a national monument. Himself an iconoclast, Fosse would have been pleased by the results. Wherever he is, Bob Fosse is probably smirking right about now. Starring Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Bill Condon. Produced by Martin Richards. A Miramax release. Musical/Black comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 113 min