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The new film of the Kander & Ebb musical Chicago is a posthumous work: Bob Fosse first staged the show on Broadway in 1975, Ann Reinking (Fosse's star and lover in '75) revived it 20 years later, and now Rob Marshall has directed and choreographed it for the screen with more aplomb than anyone had a right to expect.

Marshall -- who grew up in Pittsburgh and got his theater degree at CMU -- would surely not exist without the tacit tutelage of Fosse, whose theater and cinema imbue this impressive movie. Virtually every step, every set, every cut in Marshall's Chicago echoes Fosse (who died in 1987), making it both a lively entertainment and a loving tribute. That's why I call it a posthumous work -- or better yet, the last Bob Fosse film, channeled through one of his creative heirs.

Live-action screen musicals have become such risky business that nobody wanted to film Chicago until Marshall figured out a way to do it: When the characters need to sing and dance, they slip from a hyper-real '30s crime melodrama into surreally tinged musical-fantasy sequences. No matter that the movie's two femmes fatale -- the middle-aging nightclub star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the star-struck platinum blond floozy Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) -- are performers anyway. It's just not "realistic" to have an orchestra begin playing in a women's prison so half a dozen drop-dead-gorgeous inmates can doff their overalls to show up in something much less comfortable.

Chicago opens with Velma singing the movie's (and Fosse's) signature tune, "All That Jazz," before a somewhat boisterous crowd at a smoky café. It's a comfortable echo of Fosse's Cabaret, and while Velma sings, Marshall breaks away to introduce the ingénue Roxie, who wants to be on stage, and who thinks she'll get there by sleeping with a seductive liar who recently sold her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) some furniture.

Turns out the salesman's had his fill of Roxie after a month of boffing her along, and when he tells her the truth (and slaps her across the room), Roxie pops him two good ones with her husband's handy pistol. Next thing we know, the lovesick Amos arrives home and tells the cops that he killed the mysterious intruder -- until the dumb shlub figures out what really just happened in his new bed.

So Roxie's in jail, under the rule of the cagey matron Mama (Queen Latifah) -- whose boobs (each one) are larger than Roxie's head -- and contemplating her inevitable execution. Now all we need is the oily lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), hired by Amos to exonerate his wife. And when Velma shows up in prison for her own crime of passion, the fur -- as well as the legs -- naturally fly.

In Sweet Charity and Lenny, in Cabaret and All That Jazz, and again in Chicago, Bob Fosse stayed close to the bone of his profession: All of his work is about fame, the things people do to get it, and the things it does to them. Among his canon, Chicago isn't much of a think piece, but that's okay: Who wants to think when you can watch people sing and dance like this? The songs are all throwbacks to early 20th-century pop music and stage entertainment: some vaudeville, some soft-shoe, some Holiday blues, a novelty act and a croon, all post-modernized with Fosse's dark, erotic, signature razzle-dazzle.

And like all of Fosse's work, Chicago is virulently heterosexual. He clearly doesn't care very much about the male actors or dancers in the show, despite the cameo presence of a looker like Dominic West as the furniture salesman, and a shimmering Taye Diggs as the pianist/emcee at the jazz club where Velma performs.

Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) adapts Fosse's stage script smartly, with crisp dialogue and unpretentious caricatures. Danny Elfman writes some incidental music that fits the flow of the Kander & Ebb score. Marshall choreographs and directs with beguiling Fosse-esque flare, although he could have used less of Fosse's penchant for dismembering the musical numbers with quick cuts and close-ups. The movie's fantasy cutaway format partly forces this effect. But even when Marshall focuses just on his dancers, he too often lets his film editor become a second choreographer.

A while back, when I heard who Marshall had cast in his movie, I wondered: Do they really think people run to theaters to see "the new Richard Gere/Catherine Zeta-Jones musical"? Why not just show some integrity and cast experienced Broadway performers in the leads?

The answer is all up there on the screen. It's almost a shock to see the sleepy-eyed Gere hoofing through Billy's big cross-examination and crooning like Eddie Cantor -- which is to say, crooning well enough. Zeta-Jones began her career as a stage gypsy, and she's just fine as the steely Velma, although as usual, thoroughly nondescript when she talks. Zellweger is a nimble dancer -- Zeta-Jones is more muscular and contained -- with a charming baby-doll voice. Best of all, or at least most surprising, is Reilly, the cinema's premier Everyman, whose "Mr. Cellophane" number is a sad ballad about a lonely fellow's see-through life, performed with bittersweet resonance by an actor with a voice that sings. * * *

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