All that jazz, but not much else

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

"Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle!"

That line from the Broadway musical "Chicago" has become the show's unofficial slogan, and it applies equally well to the new Miramax movie spawned by the long-running stage hit.

The picture has razzle-dazzle by the ton, along with perky performances by stars revealing new sides to their talents. But if you're looking for anything more substantial, set your sights on another city.

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Renée Zellweger plays Roxie Hart, a wannabe celebrity who shoots her slick-talking lover; persuades her husband, Amos, to take the rap; and lands in the slammer when Amos realizes what's been going on behind his back.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma Kelley, a nightclub star who's locked in the same jail for shooting her cheating spouse. Enter the new man in their lives: Richard Gere as Billy Flynn, a money-minded lawyer who specializes in cases like theirs. Which of them will get his best attention? That question turns the would-be friends into bitter rivals, vying for Billy's favor as if their lives depended on it. Which they do.

This story could have made a sizzling courtroom drama, but in "Chicago" it takes a song-and-dance turn. That's appropriate to the tale's time and place, since Chicago was fabled for high-stepping entertainment during the jazz era.

It won't tickle those who feel murder is no laughing matter, though. The trouble with "Chicago" is the sense it conveys that nothing is really at stake - there's no moral or ethical question that can't be turned into toe-tapping fun.

It's fine to make entertainment out of human problems, of course, since this helps us ponder the problems in fresh, unthreatening ways. "Chicago" goes a step further, though, suggesting that nothing matters but celebrity - you can get away with anything at all as long as you serve up a lively, sexy show. Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle, and grab the resulting goodies while you can.

This aside, "Chicago" offers much colorful eye candy, including the spectacle of Gere in his dancing shoes, hoofing and crooning with the best of them. Zellweger and Zeta-Jones keep right up with him.

"Chicago" could revitalize the old-fashioned movie musical, a once-popular genre that's been all but moribund for years. The stars give all they've got to the effort, helped by Rob Marshall's directing and a score you'll keep humming for weeks.

Rated R for violence, vulgarity.

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