When I reviewed Gangs of New York, I mentioned that there were a number of Academy Awards — notably Best Picture and some of the technical awards — where it lost out to Chicago. I wondered at the time if this was a case of highway robbery, or if Chicago really did deserve all the acclaim over the other film, and made a note to myself to check out the other film at some point. A few months later, I’ve had the chance to do so; while I don’t feel that Gangs of New York was out-and-out robbed — Chicago is a decent film and it’s easy to see why the Academy loved it — I do find myself disagreeing with the Academy, at least as far as which is the better picture.
Interestingly, there are some similarities between the two 2002 pictures, even though one wouldn’t expect much correlation between a film about gang warfare and a modern-day musical. But both are period pieces set in iconic American cities at pivotal points in their histories, and both meticulously established that period through the use of set design, costume design, and dialect. Also, coincidentally, both feature John C. Reilly in supporting roles.
He did Gangs of New York, Chicago, and The Hours in one year, then went on to Talladega Nights, Dewey Cox, and Step Brothers. The trajectory of this career path is more than passing strange.
Chicago is centered around Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), a housewife who dreams of making it big in the jazz clubs. Her extra-marital lover, Fred (Dominic West) has promised her that he’ll introduce her to a friend of his who runs one of the local clubs. He’s lying, and the revelation causes her to grab her husband’s gun and fatally shoot him. She quickly finds herself imprisoned, awaiting trial for murder. Chicago hasn’t hanged a woman since its inception, but if the district attorney has his way, Roxie may find herself being the first.
Of course, Roxie doesn’t seem to have much to worry about. Although there would seem to be little doubt as to her guilt, she easily charms most of the people around her. Her husband, Amos (Reilly) is a simple schlub who still loves his wife even though she’s betrayed him. The matron of the women’s prison (Queen Latifah) is easy-going, and in classic corrupt Chicago fashion will help out the inmates who bribe her. And matron Morton’s assistance lands Roxie the services of slick Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a lawyer with the reputation of never losing a case when he’s defending a woman. Granted, not everybody loves her; fellow murderess Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) can’t stand her, partly because she’s also a client of Flynn (whose attention is now divided), and partly because Roxie has stolen her thunder.
Some people always have to have the spotlight… even on the gallows pole.
The intertwining of their fame and their chances of acquittal form the basis for the movie; Billy Flynn makes it clear that if the town doesn’t sympathize with them, they have no chance of getting away with it. But he’s the master at the “razzle dazzle” that will get Chicago in tune with them. Meanwhile, the movie itself razzle-dazzles the audience with song numbers following almost one after the other; straightforward movie scenes last only a few minutes. Unlike a lot of musicals where people spontaneously drop what they’re doing to start singing and dancing, the incongruity of the songs are worked into the film as part of Roxie’s delusional nature (which is also exhibited by her naivete; when told she’ll be on “murderer’s row” in the prison, she asks “Oh… is that nicer?”). Establishing character moments and significant turns in the plot’s direction are all given musical numbers (often introduced by Taye Diggs as the bandleader in Roxie’s hallucinations); these musical numbers state what’s going on more directly and clearly than the dialogue usually does. It’s not a film that’s long on plot, but the sheer volume of songs could fool you.
It’s not hard to see why the Academy liked this film. It’s different, it’s entertaining, and it’s very slick and polished. The characters are all fun to watch, and are acted out well. You find yourself rooting for Billy Flynn and for Roxie Hart even while knowing they don’t actually deserve to win. And the musical numbers are fun and catchy. Is it a better film than Gangs of New York, as the Oscars said? No. But it’s still a pretty decent film.