I saw an "opinion-makers' screening" of "Chicago" recently and had an epiphany. That is, I had an epiphany if an epiphany can bode doom instead of joy.
Sharon Stone introduced the film with much grace and gush (she even tried a modified tap routine with a Bob Fosse-style palms-up hand move). She then brought on the director, Rob Marshall, who talked about the writer Bill Condon, the composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the choreographer Bob Fosse -- with similar but less theatrical grace and gush.
Then the movie began and after about five minutes the epiphany hit: This is another Miramax miracle! The movie is filled with stars, good music and choreography and a sexed-up sort-of story -- but it's been homogenized to fit into a package that will win awards if enough publicity and advertising are grafted onto the product.
And enough has been. This movie has won Golden Globes and, as has been predicted elsewhere, is probably going to win the Oscar for best picture (unless another Miramax miracle, "The Hours," does instead.) It has all of the elements that the savvy big-M boys know will prevail: the most popular kids in class as its stars, top-notch creative people in all the right places and a novice director who can be asked to make the kind of pic Miramax needs to win another naked gold man.
All of this is bothersome for two reasons. First, a couple of really good movies won't win. "The Pianist" will not be noticed much. Academy voters probably feel like they've given their award to a Holocaust film (1994 to "Schindler's List"), and besides -- who would give an Oscar to a foreign director accused of having sex with an underage girl? "Far From Heaven," which is also wonderful, will also be passed over. (Even though Julianne Moore is perfection, director Todd Haynes is not a Hollywood insider and he once made a film about the death of Karen Carpenter starring Barbie dolls. Big mistake when it comes to winning popularity contests, Todd!)
The second is that people may think, and probably already do think, that "Chicago" is a great movie musical. Yikes! Its two biggest stars were chosen not for their singing and dancing abilities but because they are good box office right now. (It reminds me of the stories about the casting of "The Godfather" when Paramount executives tried to force then-novice director Francis Ford Coppola to cast Ryan O'Neal as Michael. Who had ever heard of Al Pacino?) In this case, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere were coached in singing and dancing and we're supposed to love their gumption.
Yes, this movie's goal is to razzle-dazzle us so we won't see what's missing. But we should. "Chicago," besides being a film that made me yawn, is just not worth the sequins that gave their lives for the production numbers. In fact, it has no real socko numbers because every scene was edited into quick-shot takes that could give the most centered person a headache. To appreciate choreography you have to see legs and feet at the same time.
One might say, "Oh, stop your whining. It's just a fun movie." And I would say, shut up. I think it's OK to worry that we are losing the ability to tell the difference between a good movie and a collection of perhaps well-intentioned and strategically orchestrated scenes strung together for effect but adding up to not much in the end. If audiences can't tell the difference, why should anyone care to do better?
See "Chicago." See if I care. But when I want a job done well, I hire professionals. These movies have them:
"Cabaret" A good movie version of a Kander and Ebb musical starring a woman who can hoof and belt with the best of 'em (she comes by it genetically).
"Singin' in the Rain" Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno in the classic movie musical. Kelly had the flu during the famous rain scene and still looks perfect.
"On the Town" Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra play sailors romping on leave in New York and gee, look -- the dancer can sing and the singer can dance!
"Funny Face" Audrey Hepburn as a model, Fred Astaire as a fashion photographer. He is a great dancer who sings sweetly. She is a great actress with enough dancing and singing ability to charm an angry warthog.
"West Side Story" Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn and the devastating duo of Jerome Robbins (choreography and co-direction) and Leonard Bernstein (score). Shakespeare is snapping his fingers in his grave. This movie won the Oscar for best picture in 1961 -- and deserved it.
Or just get any musical with Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra in it.