Rob Marshall's film version of the Broadway smash Chicago is so ingeniously staged, so electric, and so welcome to so many of us - The Musical Is Back! - that you might find yourself somewhat heartbroken when you barely remember a thing about the film a day after seeing it.
This is not to say that Chicago, a stylized, pitch-black comedy about murderesses competing for public affection in the late '20s, is without moments of total transcendence. The production design is exquisite throughout, a few of the musical numbers, like Marshall's renditions of "The Cell Block Tango" and "We Both Reached for the Gun," are applause-worthy, John C. Reilly is marvelously touching and shows off a tremendous baritone as the hapless "Mr. Cellophane," and Catherine Zeta-Jones is positively triumphant, whether singing, dancing, or simply staring the camera down. My eyeglasses are still fogged up.
I had a really good time at Chicago; I just wish the good time had lasted longer. The movie gets by on its flash and verve, but it sure doesn't withstand scrutiny. Like an action blockbuster where you cheer the explosions but decry the film's senselessness on the drive home, I realized that the movie's frenzied cutting made it impossible to truly appreciate the musical numbers (it's the sort of "flashy" editing that usually wins Oscars), that the plot is barely existent, that Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Queen Latifah, though fine singers, are mostly forgettable, and that the entire enterprise has the throwaway quality of summertime-blockbuster nonsense - with the pedigree of Fosse and Kander & Ebb. Simply put: Go, enjoy, and try not to think about it later.
Among About Schmidt's five Golden Globe nominations is one for Best Picture - Drama, and that gives me serious pause. Though Alexander Payne's film, which features Jack Nicholson's Everyman undergoing a voyage of self-discovery in a Winnebago, brings up themes of aging and mortality and "What's my place in the world?", the movie itself never rises above its series of cartoonish characters and set pieces; it's about as much of a "drama" as Jack's last holiday offering, the glorified sitcom As Good As It Gets. With the exception of an endless sequence involving Jack's perky trailer-park neighbors, it must be said that About Schmidt is never dull, and Dermot Mulroney gives an imaginative, endearing performance as Jack's future son-in-law. Yet the movie is maddening. It invites you to laugh at the funny-looking dullards and hicks onscreen, and then turns around and gives Nicholson a speech in which he admits to actually appreciating those colorful eccentrics; it gets cheap laughs out of Jack being unable to clean a kitchen or sleep in a waterbed, and then trots out a shameless tearjerker ending where Jack learns that life does indeed have meaning. About Schmidt, like its jokey/maudlin musical score, wants to be both low-comic and high-minded, and the results never form a cohesive whole. The key to the movie's schizophrenia is all there in Nicholson's performance. Though he gives the role his all, Nicholson has been encouraged to deliver both a Restrained Jack and a Screw-Loose Jack portrayal - two for the price of one! - and because either one can show up at any time, his character rarely makes a lick of sense, which perfectly befits a movie that's fraudulent from the word go yet masquerades as real life. In the end, the film seems to serve no purpose other than to net Nicholson another Oscar. Regrettably, it just might work.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
When did Steven Spielberg lose all understanding of how to wrap up a film? Both A.I. and Minority Report continued for a good 20 minutes beyond their logical endings, and now his escapist drama Catch Me If You Can seems to find a perfect finish, and then, perversely, it just keeps on going. (Based on conversations I've had, even those who love the movie admit it's about a half-hour too long.) Before that protracted finale, Spielberg's latest, about a teenaged con artist (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the FBI man tailing him (Tom Hanks), is mostly enjoyable, with DiCaprio doing some terrifically spirited work and Christopher Walken providing much-needed poignance and gravitas as the protagonist's father. The movie is rather thin and repetitive - it's little more than a bunch of sequences in which DiCaprio disguises himself as a wealthy professional, gets found out, escapes, and starts up all over again - yet it's edited nimbly and gets its early-'60s "Rat Pack" ambience down perfectly. I wish that Spielberg had paid as much attention to the minor characters as he does to DiCaprio, Hanks, and Walken - the acting in several smaller roles is embarrassing - and even though I can't work up much enthusiasm for the movie, it's fine for what it is. My guess, though, is that Catch Me If You Can would have been much more than fine with another 30 minutes snipped out of it, especially if that 30 minutes came out of its final two reels.
THE WILD THORNBERRYS MOVIE and PINOCCHIO
Why these titles in an article devoted to potential Academy Award nominees? Well, The Wild Thornberrys Movie boasts a new Paul Simon tune that is up for a Golden Globe Award; besides, after the expected nominations for Spirited Away and Ice Age, there's still a third slot open for Best Animated Feature. And Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio is Italy's official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. A nod for Thornberrys seems the more likely choice; even though the movie is only mildly amusing and Simon's song is only mildly tolerable - far less so when compared to Simon's previous output - it's probably agreeable enough for the eight-and-under set, the voice-over work is nicely done (it's fun hearing Rupert Everett in braying-psycho mode), and the young 'uns might even learn a thing or two about elephants.
Pinocchio, though, is stupefyingly bad. Forget, for a moment, the sheer lunacy of Benigni playing the titular boy-puppet without the slightest effort made to make him look like either a boy or a puppet. Forget the ridiculously cloying presentation, as in the scene where Nicoletta Brashei's Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio she was able to return to life "because of the sincerity of your grief." (Sincerity? Grief? From Benigni?) Forget the cheesy sets, and the schmaltzy music, and the deranged "comedy," and focus instead on the dubbing. Oh God, the dubbing. It's laughable enough that the English and American voice-overs are nowhere close to in-sync with the Italian actors' mouthings. But you'll need both hands to lift your jaw off the floor when confronted with middle-aged Benigni clowning while twentysomething Breckin Meyer reads his Americanized lines in a hyperactive eight-year-old's voice. Rejoice, ye connoisseurs of cinematic fiascoes - for pure, unintentional hilarity, Pinocchio is the movie event of the season.