“Chicago” is a thoroughly competent film. It’s a work-horse. It achieves all it set out to do. In a perfect Holly-world every film would be this good. But also in a perfect Holly-world, it would be only those films that went beyond mere competence that would merit thirteen Academy Award nominations.
Rob Marshall, to put it mildly, is no visionary. His idea of innovation is to steal Bob Fosse’s style shot by shot, call it homage and hope for the best. Luckily, Fosse’s editing perfectly synchronized to the moves of the dancers, who perfectly match their flawless steps to the exhilarating Ebb and Kander score, would look amazing even if Ed Wood directed. But a movie is more than the sum of its songs. Bob Fosse knew this, which is why his own film version of “Cabaret”, shot over three decades ago, feels less dated than this more recent Academy darling.
“Chicago” plays like a movie about a movie about two murderesses striving for fame in the Roaring Twenties, whereas “Cabaret” is simply a “bizarre love triangle” set in Weimar Republic-era Berlin. Renee Zellweger is capable as corrupt Chicago’s good bad girl Roxie Hart. Catherine Zeta-Jones is an able enough criminal Velma Kelly. The same goes for Richard Gere as crooked lawyer Billy Flynn, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah – they’re all so fucking competent! But Liza Minnelli did not win her Academy Award for rising to her role in “Cabaret”. She won it for reaching higher – for giving us a three-dimensional Sally Bowles, a precursor to today’s Courtney Love – so fake she’s real. In contrast, we get a thoroughly charming Roxie Hart in the form of Renee Zellweger, who plays the character so real she’s fake. Though we watch her kill onscreen we get no sense from the actress that she’s a murderess. She’s a one-dimensional cutie pie, a spoiled, dreaming bad seed. In Minnelli’s ferocious performance, we glimpse in her wild eyes and anxious body language the screwed-up childhood she must have had, that which fuels her to sing and dance or die. Zellweger’s Roxie is a fun but empty slate, her mild drive to be a star disingenuous. In real life Liza Minnelli had the demons of Judy Garland to escape, while Renee Zellweger has admitted in interviews that she pretty much fell into acting. It shows in both performances.
In Fosse’s “Cabaret”, the script and the songs are thread together seamlessly, enhancing one another. A natural flow occurs, and we never get the sense that the performers prize the musical numbers over the spoken words. On the contrary, the acting scenes in “Chicago” feel forced. It’s like the actors are just killing time before their next chance to sing and dance which, of course, is why they signed on to do Marshall’s movie in the first place. Overall the cast has a blast returning to their stage and musical roots, reliving those innocent high school productions when a green light was simply something on a driver's test. As a result the script becomes a mere afterthought, a boring but necessary way to string the wonderful musical numbers together.
“Chicago” is not a story. It’s a statement on the power of publicity, the media’s ability to turn life and death into fortune and fame. “Cabaret” easily could have been a treatise on the rise of fascism, but instead is a story about love, finding oneself then honoring that discovery. It’s been said that the difference between Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams is that the former wrote about big ideas and the latter about particular situations and characters – and that this is why Miller’s plays often don’t hold up onscreen. I would argue the same about “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. Richard Gere plays every sleazy lawyer in the history of Hollywood, while Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies in “Cabaret” is so eccentric he’s specific. Renee Zellweger’s front page, generic, girl-next-door smile can’t hold a torch to the unspoken desperation in Liza Minnelli’s singing eyes. Media manipulation and a disregard for human life are very timely issues, but will that be enough for “Chicago” to stay fresh for another thirty years? “Cabaret” has stood the test of time because as Shakespeare proved, being true to oneself never goes out of style.