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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Reviews

Chicago, A Guy Thing & National Security

Chicago

Using the classic musical form as a foundation and throwing in just a dose of MTV razzle dazzle, Rob Marshall's Chicago is the musical Moulin Rouge wanted to be. Chicago shows far more restraint than Baz Luhrmann's overrated exercise in excess by eschewing MoulinRouge's seizure-inducing editing. Instead, Marshall favors sharply choreographed dance numbers executed with passion from its game performers and a great musical score that generates heat. Moulin Rouge's musical moments were obscured by its machine-gun cutting technique, a pattern that made the effort put into the film impossible to truly appreciate. Marshall wisely builds upon the music of songwriting duo Fred Ebb and John Kander and the sexy style of choreographer Bob Fosse, who co-wrote and first staged Chicago on Broadway in 1975.

Many moviegoers have difficulty appreciating musicals; they just can't accept a character who's compelled at any given moment to break out into song. Chicago solves this problem by making it clear that most of its elaborate musical numbers take place in the imagination of one of its characters. That would be Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a young girl who longs to be a singer. Hart idolizes Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a vamping dynamo who sets the Chicago stages on fire with her incendiary routines. Unfortunately, Hart follows her idol, but not to the stage. Both are in the Cook County Jail. Kelly is awaiting trial for murdering her sister and husband. Hart is being held for shooting her lover, a two-bit hustler who promised her stardom. The jail is run by Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah), a shakedown artist who, for the right price, can hook up any of her girls with defense lawyer Billy Flynn (ùichard Gere). Supremely confident ("If Jesus had $5,000 and come to me, things would have worked out differently") and never having lost a case, Flynn guarantees that his clients will go free. He also promises something far more precious--stardom.

Once Flynn's "star," Kelly is soon on the outside looking in when Flynn begins to shower more of his time and attention on Hart, who revels in it. The two women are soon competing for the media spotlight, something only Flynn can manipulate.

Hart's interpretation of the events and people who surround her are rendered in elaborate musical numbers. Although the film would have been better off doing away with one or two of the songs, they are imaginatively realized and stay with you long after the film has ended.

While none of the three principals will ever be mentioned in the same breath as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they prove more than capable. Their enthusiasm alone more than makes up for any of their shortcomings. Gere is obviously having great fun here and it shows. Whether tap dancing for the court or hamming it up for the jury, he's very much in his element. He needs more projects that display this frivolous side. Zeta-Jones is the true revelation here. She dominates the screen whenever she appears. All eyes are on her as she struts and ferociously belts out her songs and snaps off her moves with a sexiness that is completely intoxicating. It comes as no surprise that more than one Las Vegas showplace has approached her to star in her own live revue. While Zellweger doesn't smolder as her co-star does, there's no denying the energy she brings to her role. She doesn't capture the eye as Zeta-Jones does, but she works just as hard and matches her step for step.

Memorable moments from Latifah ("When You're Good to Mama") and John C. Reilly as Hart's sad sack husband ("Mr. Cellophane") give the three stars a break and keep the momentum going. This movie doesn't overstay its welcome, but it does wear you out. There's no question that Chicago gives you your money's worth and then some.

(Running time 1:53, rated PG-13)
Grade B+


A Guy Thing
National Security

It pays to be prepared. Though having to compile a list of the worst movies of 2003 is 11 months away, Columbia Pictures and MGM Studios have given me the opportunity to get a head start with the release of A Guy Thing and National Security, two of the most inane, misguided "comedies" I've had to suffer through. It's never a good sign when a film's release date is changed more than once, something that happened to both movies. But this in no way prepared me for just how inept, unimaginative, and boring they were.

Jim (Shawn Hatosy), the best friend of poor, hapless groom-to-be Paul (Jason Lee), says there are three rings in every relationship: "the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and the suffering." That old saw is the first joke in A Guy Thing and it's all down hill from there. After muddling through his bachelor party, which he approaches with the enthusiasm of having a root canal, Paul wakes up the next morning to find himself sharing his bed with "kiki dancer" Becky (Julia Stiles). Both of them conveniently can't recall what led to this awkward situation and go their separate ways. Unfortunately, they soon meet again. Becky is the cousin of Karen (Selma Blair), Paul's fiancée. Boy, talk about a small world.

That's just the first of many desperate moments. Paul is a completely unrealistic character. No one would do the things he does to cover up his previous encounter with Becky. At one point or another the script has him feigning diarrhea, stuck in a pine tree, shot at by his conservative father-in-law to be (James Brolin), trying to hide a pair of thong underwear in his apartment and, well, the list is endless. Despite the sense of charm Stiles and Blair bring to the film and the fact that Lee does his best to sell these lame routines, the entire exercise falls flat on its face. The only bright spot comes from Larry Miller as Paul's constantly flustered neighbor, who turns out to be the minister officiating at his wedding. The veteran comic gets more laughs out of his brief slow-burn moments than the rest of the cast can muster throughout the entire film.

Equally painful is National Security, a cliché fest--unless you find car chases, gun battles, and gratuitous sex jokes to be witty and inspired. Martin Lawrence is Earl Montgomery, a wannabe cop who believes that racial prejudice is the cause of all of his troubles. It never occurs to him that his lack of talent and flippant attitude are the real problems. Police officer Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn) has the misfortune of meeting up with Montgomery and a simple misunderstanding between them soon morphs into a highly charged racial incident. As a result, Officer Hanks is thrown off the force and jailed for six months. Upon his release, Rafferty gets a job with a security company where Montgomery works (that "small world" thing again). Of course, they bicker and fight but eventually bond to track down a drug ring, the leader of which killed Rafferty's partner.

There isn't a remotely original idea in this rote exercise. The gags writers Jay Scherick and David Ronn pull out are worn and obvious. The bad guys are generic and the plot contains as many surprises as the contents of a baby's diaper. Lawrence is the most derivative comic in film history. He has inexplicably succeeded in building a career by stealing his attitude, material, and persona from other, far more successful and innovative performers. The angry black man schtick he assumes here, which is hardly a new one for Lawrence, promotes reverse discrimination and proves disrespectful to everyone. There's simply nothing funny about that.

A Guy Thing
(Running time 1:30, rated PG-13)
Grade D

National Security
(Running time 1:41, rated PG-13)
Grade D