Chicago: A Review

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Three main themes in the hit movie Chicago are the sexualization of women as a form of empowerment, the transformation of identity as a solution to practical needs, and the male domination of society. In the film, the main character Roxie Hart desires a life of self-determination that is more fulfilling than her modest, cookie cutter existence as a struggling housewife. She perceives an ersatz vision of this life in Velma Kelly, who wears scant clothing and dances and sings on stage for the entertainment of men. Early on, she holds an unrealistic view of Kelly's sense of empowerment as projected on stage, failing to comprehend that during Kelly's saucy and spirited first musical number, her life is actually crumbling.


Later, she has cold, anonymous sex with a doctor in order to facilitate an ill-conceived pregnancy that only serves to weaken her position. The crux of her central conflict stems from an illicit affair with the man she murdered. The purpose of the affair, like the casual exhibition with the doctor, was to use her sex as a means to an end, in this case, to secure a position in a popular venue that would never materialize because it was never real in the first place. The man, her mister, used her ambition for sex the same way she used her sex for ambition. Though the man actually dies, the woman only suffers brief incarceration before learning to use her sex to her advantage as a function of her character. This theme is also evident in the “Razzle Dazzle” scene, where Hart must play down her own views and desires to play the part of a wooden doll, jaws operated by her crooked but competent lawyer, literally objectifying the sort of comfortable image of her sex which society expects and will tolerate, but which she herself abhorred, as evidenced by her early fascination with the highly sexualized image of Kelley with whom she was so taken.
Hart typifies the Hollywood image of a simple farm girl trying to remake her image and change her life by writing her name in neon lights. She is at first bumbling, vulnerable, simple, gullible, and inept- qualities upon which show business feeds like vampiric vultures. She is a teary eyed mess of frantic irrationality when she realizes her secret lover has played her, and explodes in a passionate, volatile, feminine rage, forgetting herself and her consequences. This presents a clear early picture of a character who desperately craves control but has not the faculties to manage it. She is consumed, like Kelley, by an act of vengeance which topples her ambition from the inside out. However, without ever stopping to consider the moral implications of her actions, she rationalizes, as do all the women in the cell block, that she was justified, and so tries to preserve herself from consequence. The event, the murder, becomes just another shadow of her former self to outgrow. Her prison experience is analogous to the proverbial 'crucible of fire.' She hardens, solidifies, and detaches from human emotion as a means to her end. She must gain control over the image she presents in order to reduce the odds of her conviction and thereby save herself. Like the other women, her circumstance is perceived to be the product of a weakness of character that she cannot address, and the outcome of her efforts illustrate the consequence of that self-delusion. She obtains her freedom, but never gets to become the self-reliant superstar she imagined Kelley to have been. In the end, both women are reduced from this lofty construct, and are able to succeed only with each other's help, and even then, only on the temporal momentum generated by their shocking sensationalism.
The overarching theme in Chicago is the male domination of society. Hart resents the limitations implied in her husband's boring and meager occupational station. But her solution is to simply replace him with another man with seemingly better prospects. The quality of logic which produces this kind of a judgment is evidenced by the result. She is humiliated and used by the man in whom she perceives advantageous, and idolized and adored by the man who actually works to earn his way. Hart is blind to this contradiction and sees only an intolerable pattern of dependency on men. She is not willing to assume the sacrifices of her husband by further demeaning herself with honest employment, but she is convinced nonetheless that she has earned, de facto, a better quality of life than he will provide. The entire story is about her refusing to accept mediocrity, but putting forth nothing of herself to conquer it.
At first viewing, the film may seem to reinforce modern cultural views of feminine empowerment with its non-traditional clothing, open sexuality, and gratuitously liberalized imagery. The stars are women. The tough prison warden is a woman. The lady upon whom Hart's lawyer depends to sway public opinion as the media briefly latches on to her case is a woman. The film resolves with both women having triumphed, having made their own way in the world. But if the audience looks carefully in the final scenes, as Hart and Kelley do their song and dance to jolly music under hot lights, they are still merely objects for a male audience who has gained no more respect or appreciation for them as people. Their revenue is dependent on the tastes and whims of men, and this reality is reinforced by the last major conflict in the film. At the height of Hart's sensational domination of the Chicago spotlight, another whimpering girl commits an act of murder, and steals the show. The message here is disposability, that Hart and Kelley can be replaced by nothing more substantial than a change in the wind. The positions of empowerment they seek are false, and are based on false premises. Hart isn't content with having gained her freedom against all rational probability. She is more broken by the passing of her fifteen minutes of fame than relieved at the possibility of life in prison or hanging.
The lesson for modern audiences is two-fold. First, it is folly to replace a life of servitude with a life of debasement. Women who truly want independence will find it in math or science more readily than in glamorous pursuits of a hollow, idealized, mythology in Hollywood. There are many wonderfully successful actresses and female performers out there, but most of them will assert that their success comes from grueling, endless hours of hard work and practice and dedication to their craft. Professionals may sometimes benefit from their aesthetic features, but rarely do sustainable careers emerge from daydreams, laziness, and intrigue. The other major lesson in Chicago is that in modern society, not all the trouble a girl can get herself into can be reasonably explained by chauvinism and glass ceilings. Though these are certainly inhibiting social factors, one's own decisions are still a salient component of one's outcome. If women are disadvantaged in society, this ailment is only worsened by faith in phony ideals, trust in shady promises, and most of all, by rash behavior and insincerity.
Zellweger, Gere, and Zeta-Jones make this a MUST WATCH! A million points to Rob Marshall for some amazingly complex scenes, and lustily pulp-period imagery. Recommended for all humans.


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