On The Town With Rex Reed

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Rockin’ Chicago Floored Me

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by Rex Reed

Fabulous! Forgive me for that overworked adjective, but it’s about to get worked over again. It’s really the only one that accurately and consummately describes Chicago . As the Christmas countdown begins at the movies, all bets are off, release dates for opening-day reviews are by necessity ignored, and I am forced to compress as many opinions into one space as my memory and eyesight will allow. So I’m advising you to plan ahead! An avalanche of movies will fall on your head in the next few weeks, but this holiday season, move Chicago to the top of your shopping list. This spectacular movie version of the Broadway musical is one dazzling, cheering, throbbing, singing, dancing, eye-popping, heart-stopping lollapalooza! I’ve already seen it twice, and after it opens on Christmas Day, I plan to make it a regular viewing habit.

Chicago is everything Baz Luhrmann’s campy Moulin Rouge said it was, thought it was and pretended it was, but never was. It’s been a hit stage show for 25 years. Now it’s a motion-picture extravaganza that revives and re-invents the endangered movie musical, breathing new life and ideas into a cherished tradition while honoring the concepts of that tradition. By revolutionizing musicals without deconstructing them, Broadway choreographer Rob Marshall-whose only previous film direction was a television production of Annie -makes the kind of smashing feature-film directing debut that will undoubtedly establish him as a major player in the American Cinema board game, and I predict the brilliant singing and prancing of Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Roxie and her archrival Velma, and Richard Gere as Billy Flynn, the shyster lawyer who turns them both into front-page news, will transform all three stars into household names. Shot in 60 days on a $45 million budget (modest by today’s standards), Chicago has the energy and socko entertainment value of 10 movies rolled into one. At the same time, Mr. Marshall finds new ways to meld the narrative and the musical numbers cohesively, juxtaposing the Police Gazette look and feel of Chicago’s Prohibition-era gangsters, speakeasies, jazz and bathtub gin with the adventures of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two murderous chorus girls who parlay crime and the restorative value of bad P.R. into show-business razzle-dazzle. It’s a triumph on every level.

From the opening shot, when Mr. Marshall’s camera closes in on the iris of Roxie’s poison-green eye, everything that happens musically is a reflection of her imagination. Characters do not face each other and break into song like they did in the good old MGM days, or even in Bob Fosse’s famous stage version. In Chicago , Roxie’s dizzy brain is a proscenium stage, and every showstopping number in the rousing score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is filtered through her mind just the way she dreams it up. The leaky pipes and dripping faucets of the Cook County jail set the rhythm as the cell doors open and the six hottest floozies on Murderers’ Row undulate through the bars to re-enact their homicides to the sizzling choreography of “He Had It Coming.” Billy Flynn’s three knockout numbers-a Ziegfeld Follies striptease, the “Press Conference Rag” that turns the ink-stained wretches of yellow journalism into marionettes with Billy Flynn pulling their strings, and the murder trial in which Billy’s courtroom antics as Roxie’s crooked defense attorney escalate into an aggres-sive, heel-clicking tap dance-introduces a Richard Gere nobody has ever seen before. Richard Gere as a cross between José Greco and Gene Kelly? I tell you, you have to see this movie to believe your eyes.

A year ago, Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones were probably nobody’s automatic first choices for Roxie and Velma. The skeptics will now be eating crow for years to come. They don’t exactly erase the historic memory of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera onstage (the movie is dedicated to Gwen, and Chita appears as an inside joke in a cameo), and I will never realize my dream of the movie that was planned 25 years ago with Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli. But I am here to tell you that these two ladies are out of this world. Rocking the rafters from every camera angle on “All That Jazz,” Ms. Zeta-Jones has the legs of Cyd Charisse and the camera hypnotism of Hedy Lamarr, and in her big solo “Roxie” spot, Ms. Zellweger kicks and swings her fanny and stops the show like Shirley MacLaine. In the star-spangled finale, shaking their sequins with white machine guns, the torrid, tough tomato and the baby-faced blonde are the most devastating pair of gold diggers since Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Taking their own bows, Queen Latifah is Mama Morton, the prison matron with connections at the William Morris office, John C. Reilly is a standout as Roxie’s gullible doofus husband who steals the center spot on “Mr. Cellophane,” and Christine Baranski is the hilarious sob sister whose column can make or break any floozy facing acquittal or death. They all do their own singing and dancing, and the results will floor you.

But in addition to all the sizzling talent on view, the thing I love about Chicago is the way it respects the cinematic medium itself. The movie is a masterpiece of editing. Every shoe that hits the floor, every gasp, every wink is intercut with the turn of a key in a cell door, the slamming of a judge’s gavel or the sound of a firing gun. The film achieves a perfect mix of fantasy and reality in and out of the musical routines, which are all presented as vaudeville turns. And unlike many musical directors, who cut off the legs and feet of performers in motion, zooming in on their lips and mouths in annoying closeups, Mr. Marshall is more a student from the Vincente Minnelli school. He’s not afraid to show the entire body language of dancers in motion in the context of a production number. He is, after all, a choreographer, too. But there’s a flawless balance here: The big routines do not dominate the movie at the expense of the text. In every frame, you see everything you need to see. The sensitivity, skill and genuine adoration for musicals that has all but disappeared from today’s films comes at you in spades, adding up to a work of art that is very rare, indeed. Chicago not only brings back movie musicals; it rockets them to a delicious new level of importance which, with any luck, could be the start of something big. Mamma, mamma, what a show!

Chuck Barris? Not Quite

If Chuck Barris was ever forced to take a lie-detector test, he’d land in jail. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , self-consciously directed by George Clooney, the overrated gonzo writer Charlie Kaufman turns the life of quirky, deluded television producer Barris into a series of tableaux that are purely fictional. Appearing in my cowlick days as one of the so-called judges on The Gong Show was not one of the proudest chapters in my career, but it was crazy, harmless fun, like Mr. Barris himself, and it taught me enough about him to assure you that there is scarcely a moment of truth in this film, which you cannot watch without tongue in cheek and eyes rolled in the direction of the ceiling. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , Chuck Barris re-invents himself as a cross between James Bond and Soupy Sales. Or rather, he’s been re-invented by Mr. Kaufman, the same way he invented himself in Adaptation . Part documentary, part biopic and totally ludicrous, it depicts the producer of such tacky, low-brow pabulum for the masses as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game as a failed intellectual, a dilettante songwriter, a bimbo-collecting heel, a paranoid schizophrenic and a secret agent for the C.I.A. who murdered 33 people between visits from the Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. From his youth, when he talks a childhood friend into licking his johnson, to the day he poisons Julia Roberts, he describes his life as “a downward spiral of debauchery.” The movie asks you to believe that between tapings of The Dating Game , with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as contestants, he was globe-trotting to danger zones like Helsinki and the Berlin Wall, hiding microfilm in his anus. Loading too many time slots with junk finally caught up with him, and he was banished to cancellation hell. Now he resurfaces with enough literary license to make Pee-wee Herman look like Anwar Sadat. Among the autobiographical details provided by Mr. Barris, we are told that his father was a serial killer who died in the electric chair, that his twin sister strangled to death at birth on his umbilical chord (his first “hit”) and that his mother raised him as a girl. Everyone is in on the joke, including the director (Mr. Clooney appears as an inner voice and alter ego in the form of a cloak-and-dagger figure in the C.I.A., the way Ed Harris kept appearing to Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind ) and the real-life interview subjects (“He’s a good guy-even though he’s a prick,” says Gong Show panelist Jaye P. Morgan). Utterly preposterous, of course, but if Mr. Barris is clearly a legend in his own mind, the only legend in the making of this film is Sam Rockwell, a charismatic, multi-talented chameleon who looks different in every role and plays every character to the hilt. Disguised behind Mr. Barris’ frizzy, shell-shocked hair and goofball expression, this vibrant, riveting actor takes delight in wrecking his potential for superstar status-but his ability to lose himself in a role with dedicated conviction literally devours the movie. For a film that tries so hard to be different, Mr. Clooney’s direction shows an alarming paucity of style, but as the wick that keeps Confessions of a Dangerous Mind lit and glowing, Sam Rockwell is phenomenal.

Unglam Brosnan Lifts Evelyn

In James Bond movies, Pierce Brosnan shows what he learned at the gym. In Evelyn , he shows he can act. Based on a true 1953 court case that changed the laws in Ireland governing single parenthood, this lovely, inspired film by celebrated director Bruce Beresford chronicles the arduous struggle of an unemployed Dublin house painter to regain custody of his children after the government and the Catholic Church take them away. Abandoned by his wife on the day after Christmas, straddled with the responsibility of three kids to raise and desperately unable to get work, Desmond Doyle (the Irish-born Brosnan, accent and all) goes on the dole, hits the bottle and falls on hard times. Fighting the system and the church to get his family back, the luckless, disillusioned but caring father is rescued by an odd assortment of sympathetic new friends who rally to his cause: an Irish-born American solicitor (Aidan Quinn) who takes on the entire system of Irish family law; a retired alcoholic judge (Alan Bates) who acts as an unofficial adviser, staking his integrity against the cruelty of the establishment; and a feisty barmaid (Julianna Margulies) who revives Doyle’s self-respect and offers the rejuvenating possibility of love the second time around. By the time Doyle (solidly and sympathetically played by Mr. Brosnan without a trace of glamour) gives up liquor and violence, cleans up his act, throws himself on the mercy of the court with a heart-wrenching testimony and reclaims the love of his 9-year-old daughter Evelyn (played by a luminous, daisy-faced child named Sophie Vavasseur), there won’t be a dry eye in the house. The key relationship between the flawed, rough-edged but loving father and the little girl whose faith in him never wavers is beautifully delineated, the film captures the legal and emotional complexities of a case that set a historic precedent and changed the Irish Constitution, and under Mr. Beresford’s careful eye, Mr. Brosnan gives the performance of his life. The four-hankie emotion in Evelyn is inescapable, but so is the impact of a film that is profound, informed, honest and utterly, charmingly lacking in pretense.

On The Town With Rex Reed