Many moons ago, my friend Joseph, the musical pioneer behind the band Windows to Sky, saw a stage production of URINETOWN and wrote an incredibly intelligent deconstruction about why it did not work for him. Now, unfortunately for most of us, it's not available for public reading, but in brief, he spoke about the play's overreliance on satire and irony, a cause that I will always take up and run with further. I was put in an awkward position, though, because I then used his argument to rip apart a movie musical that he truly likes. But I found it appropriate, and we agreed to disagree. Since we're getting into Oscar season, and the inevitable talk about the most unworthy films to have won the big prizes, this particular movie is again a timely matter. As such, I'm reviving the argument, and have excerpted pieces of his critique in small print to bolster mine.
musicals I Like or Love: INTO THE WOODS. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN...these are pieces of art that generally speaking work on every level: from each character's story, to the story between the characters, to the story of the society and world in which the action takes place. plus, the songs and the movements pulse with life - the life of these characters, about whom we care, even if we care cynically. we are engaged in wanting to know what happens, and every step taken is one step further along that path.
Many more moons ago when I first bought my ticket to see Rob Marshall's film adaptation of CHICAGO, I was very excited about it. I had never seen the show done on a stage, really only knew the hit songs. But I had positive expectations. However, after the first 20 minutes, I felt a strange icky feeling. I did NOT care about these characters. Not even cynically. And while I was going to stay and see what happened next, it had quickly turned to an act of obligation and not of true interest.
CHICAGO is a technically, artistically, aesthetically, musically brilliant film, and if the movie had been nothing but those great musical performances, I probably would have liked it. Unfortunately, those musical numbers are in the service of a story that wears it's contempt for you and me right on it's chest, and is centered around four of the most vile, unpleasant, unamusing characters ever created, and I had to listen to these people talk, and talk, and whine, and hiss, and lie, until it reached a point where I didn't even want to hear them sing and dance anymore. The women are harridans, Richard Gere is a slime, and John C. Reilly is a passive-agressive, self-pitying mope. There is not a single person in this story one can or should give a rat's ass about.
There is no story between the characters, there is no "there" there. This is among the many eternal arguments I have with CHICAGO fans -- Of course they're empty and shallow, they're supposed to be. Indeed, I had that figured out before I even walked in the theatre. After all, some of my favorite movies have no sympathetic characters in them -- SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, SOAPDISH, THE KING OF COMEDY, these films have protagonists that are devoid of any likeability. And in those settings, yes, those qualities can be made interesting. So why did I feel such a violent reaction to CHICAGO's rogues?
And it hit me: not only are they horrible people, they're boring!
For example, TO DIE FOR covers the ground of people who are driven to be famous because they have no skills for anything else, and honestly believe adoration of strangers will make them better people. What is the difference? Flat out: what Nicole Kidman does to become famous is interesting, funny, and ultimately shocking, while what Jones and Zellweger do is predictable, tedious, and unpleasant. Also, Kidman's character honestly believes in the ridiculous platitudes she espouses, so we laugh at her naievete, but the CHICAGO girls seem to know what they are professing is bullshit, and so how can we invest any interest in it if they can't even believe in their own philosophy?
the characters are two-dimensional, but that's okay, it's a satire! we don't know enough about the two leads to feel their situation has any real human gravity - but that's okay, it's what makes it cartoonish! cartoons are fun!
As for the cartoonishly nasty tone, mean for mean's sake is never enough in a story. Something has to back it up. In SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, when J.J. Hunsecker makes an insult, he has the force of his career to back it up: be glad it's just words, because in fact he could have you killed. Sidney Falco is a self-loathing weasel, and his insults carry that awareness: yeah, I'm a louse, but I know what I am, and you're a hypocrite for not recognizing your own sleaziness. Whereas the manner in which the protagonists of CHICAGO are written and performed gives them nothing else to offer but their vices. They have one note -- vanity -- and it wears out very quickly, there's no other dimension to them. The would-be funny banter between the girls in prison is just a pot and a kettle arguing over blackness: it may as well be Pee-wee and Francis yelling "I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I?" ad nauseam. If you had to share a cell with any of these fucks, either you would have hung yourself or you would have stuck a shiv in them before they could start that first song.
Another big problem with CHICAGO: No straight man, audience surrogate, voice of reason. Not a choirboy, mind you, just someone grounded in the real world who can speak for us. The closest it has is John C. Reilly, and frankly, he's nobody's hero. He is a whiny drama queen who if he had any spine would have split a long time ago, but instead stays and puts up with Zellwegger's abuse and expects us to feel sorry for poor "Mr. Cellophane." But he loves her! What is to love? We have never seen a single moment where they appear to have had any joy, or even where he alone has had any joy of being with her. What is the first thing you tell a suffering alcoholic? "STOP DRINKING!" If they can't do that, then any other investment in their welfare is worthless. Same for giving two shits or ten bricks about his character or condition.
I kept wanting to care, so I could find the heartlessness actually painful. I wanted my heart to go with them, so the satire could have bite. when we watch Homer Simpson fuck up, we laugh, but on some level, we still like or relate to him. he represents things we care about. these people really didn't, most of the time.
So if there is no individual stand-in for us, then we must identify with the citizens of the city of Chicago. And in that environment, we are depicted as sheep, easily manipulated by people not even that much smarter than us. And while we toil in daily drudgery, we are shown eagerly paying for the big reunion show of the two murderesses. "We win, you lose, and you're too stupid to care." Maybe that assessment is true, and worth stating to our modern-day bread-and-circus-freaks mentality. But is that an original idea? No. Is this idea presented in such a manner as to inspire the audience to rethink their gullibility? NO. So what was the purpose of making me sit through your litany of narcissism and contempt?
Okay, so you don't like the characters. You're not supposed to. You gotta admit the dance numbers are great.
CHICAGO is technically flawless, well-staged and executed. But if I hate somebody, why do I want to watch them sing and dance, especially when the topic of their song is how they can stomp all over me and what I believe in? By a certain point, I have written off every character in this movie as a pig. (And not a sweet cuddly pig like Babe or Wilbur, I mean an ugly, smelly, shit-stanky wild boar with tusks, like Mason Verger was breeding to get revenge on Hannibal Lecter, something from Russell Mulcahy's nightmares.) And no matter how much lighting and lingerie and choreography you throw in, you cannot make me forget that I AM WATCHING UGLY FUCKING PIGS IN COSTUME SING AND DANCE. And I don't want to watch ugly fucking pigs in costume sing and dance! I want to slit their throats and eat them so that they never bother anybody again and that I can get finally get some worthwhile item of pleasure from their person.
CHICAGO has no heart. And it has no original thought. It glorifies insincerity. It is a soulless, derivative machine.
I've said enough, I think you all get that I hate this movie. And I'm not dumb enough to believe that I'm going to make anybody rethink their position on it. But I gotta say, with absolutely no irony, I rather wish they made musicals like THE APPLE again.