Oh boy. This movie. This musical. Synopsis:
The movie’s central focus is on Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), and Lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Velma Kelly is a show girl, who gets arrested for killing her sister and husband after discovering that the two were having an affair. Roxie Hart is a simple housewife who gets imprisoned for killing her lover after she discovered he lied about having the connections she needed to become a Vaudeville performer. With the two murderesses in line for the hangman’s noose they hire defense attorney Billy Flynn, who sets out to publicize and make the two women famous, in order to get them off of death row. The two women end up competing with each other to gain Flynn’s attention and the public’s attention.
To start off, I should make it clear that I really enjoyed this movie. I laughed out loud (probably more than I should have) and enjoyed a few of the numbers quite a lot. None of the numbers were particularly memorable when compared to other musicals, but Cell Block Tango was a guilty favorite. I also thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance. I haven’t seen much of her work, but was pleasantly surprised by how well she was singing and performing the blocking for the numbers she was in. She was a very believable, ruthless, self-engrossed Velma Kelly. I wasn’t as impressed with Richard Gere’s singing. He was a spectacularly slick Billy Flynn, but he should stick to film and not theater (in my inexperienced opinion).
In any case though, I had slightly mixed feelings. I felt guilty about enjoying it as much as I did, since I found something morally questionable in the themes in the movie.
Every murderer in the movie was a woman who did not feel guilty for her actions. Whoever she killed, “had it coming” and if we (her audience) had been there “we would have done the same.” Most of the women killed the men they did because the men did something deceitful, either lying to them or cheating on them. I’m not one to condone infidelity, but it all just seems so absurd. These women killed someone, a morally reprehensible crime, yet with the proper publicity they are celebrated among the Chicago masses. Men and women were falling all over Roxie Hart merchandise. They want her haircut, her personal belongings, Roxie action figures; and all the while I’m sitting there thinking “but she’s a murderer, who hasn’t reformed at all.” I can just hear the people of Chicago replying “but she’s a sweetheart.” Mhm. And people found Ted Bundy charming. In any case, I guess it’s that absurdity that makes the movie so enjoyable.
The entire city ran on lies and deceit. The women killed their victims based on the very behavior they perpetrated to get out of their crimes. Velma and Roxie both weave lies, according to Billy Flynn’s direction, so they can get out prison and onto the stage, where they are the truest to themselves. (They treat life as a stage; nothing is real, and it’s all a giant show, and it doesn’t matter if what they say or do is true, as long as they get the attention they want.) Chicago seems to run on an inverted set of principles and morals. Those who are honest and guiltless are those that get shafted.
Roxie’s husband, portrayed by John C. Reilly, is a down-to-earth, naive, decent man. He is willing to take the blame for killing Roxie’s lover, as long as she doesn’t go to prison (of course he recounts his statement once he finds out that the man had been Roxie’s lover, and not the burglar she had claimed he was). He then does everything he can to raise $5,000 to hire Flynn to get his wife out of jail (and $5000 was no small fee, as the man was an auto mechanic….many debts had to be incurred to afford a sum like that). Then he gets used as a total tool and is humiliated in front of an entire courtroom, only for Roxie to insult him straight up in his face after she gets acquitted. He leaves her, never actually being with her; he loses everything, he essentially never had–a wife, a domestic life, money, and a child.
Katalin Helinszki (the Hungarian murderess portrayed by Ekaterina Chtchelkanova) doesn’t speak a word of English. All we ever get of Katalin is that brief monologue in Hungarian, which only those who can speak the language understand, and the panicked “not guilty” that follows it. Clearly the ambiguity surrounding the monologue is an artistic choice necessary to maintain the ambiguity around Katalin’s guilt. She’s the only one out of all the murderess’ who isn’t shamelessly proclaiming her crime, saying that’s she’s glad she’s done it and would gladly do it again. Her perpetual prayers to her only belonging, a cross on the wall, further supports the fact that she may actually be innocent. If she is not innocent, her actions at least imply reformation and that she is asking for pardon for her sins. This would make her the only criminal that truly feels guilty about her crimes, whereas Roxie’s entire popularity stems from the fact that she is a reformed criminal, who will turn her eyes from the life of booze and sex. Nevertheless, what does Katalin receive? She is the first woman in the history of Cook County Prison to get publicly hanged. Justice is blind, and retribution delivered onto those who deserve? Hmm…questionable.
Ultimately the musical highlights that which it is accomplishing: in Mama Morton’s words, “murder is another form of entertainment.” We as the audience sit and watch and be entertained by this tale of two murderesses become stars and being acquitted for crimes that if they had been men, they would have definitely been hanged for. This isn’t the first time or the last time audiences will be entertained by murder and crime. But, Chicago waves the entire tactic in front of its audience, it “Razzle Dazzles” us, with all of its sequins and lace, and we buy in. I know I definitely did.