Artisan // 1990 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // December 15th, 2003
When desire has no limits...fantasies become dangerous realities!
Georgina is a dancehall dame who hopes one day to be an actress. Ricky Allen is a US serviceman on leave in London. It's the height of World War II. The couple meets in a local teahouse and begins a world wind affair. Georgina imagines Ricky as a real life gangster, the kind of glamorous hoodlum that Hollywood has sold her after far too many nights in the local movie house. Ricky is charmed by Georgina's sexual availability and spark. Together, they take a tumultuous trip into crime and punishment. Georgina wants some "danger" in her life. Ricky is more than happy to oblige and soon they are robbing and accosting people. But when Georgina wants a fur coat, Ricky is forced to bludgeon a young woman for it. Then they murder a cabbie for nothing more than the thrill of it. It appears that, after a very short period of time, our coldhearted duo has developed a bond stronger than ethics or morality. Or maybe not. Seems not everyone is who he or she says they are and the elements that drew Ricky and Georgina to each other may be nothing more than a well-planned fraud on each other's part. It will take an investigation by the police and a final revelation of who everyone really is to decipher the criminal from the con. Was Ricky really a mobster serving his country? Was Georgina an innocent flower with Hollywood fantasies filling her eyes? Or were they both victims of a lurid desire to make the fantasy pairing of Chicago Joe and the Showgirl real.
The problems with Chicago Joe and the Showgirl are obvious from the opening scenes. Director Bernard Rose, responsible for such visionary horror films as Paperhouse and Candyman, immediately immerses us in that kind of fake Hollywood glamour that only a non-American can overdo so overtly. Everything is gaudy, fake, and forced. Perhaps this is how it is meant to be, since star Emily Lloyd is creating this Tinseltown in her own hyperactive imagination. The bigger dilemma comes when we are asked to juxtapose this bright lights fantasy world with a bombed out Britain circa 1945. Suddenly, the escape seems even more counterfeit and Lloyd's actions more contrite. Since nothing is ever explained outright, we have to start making assumptions. And assumptions are what ultimately kill this film. Part of this comes from the fact that, as a character, Lloyd's Georgina is a nonentity, an empty shell being filled in with movies and maudlin life experiences. Why she is so smitten with Kiefer Sutherland's vacant soldier is anyone's guess. There is no real physical attraction. They seem to confront each other as interesting experiment specimens, individuals without clearly defined characteristics that they can manipulate. Yet this is also a big supposition, since there are no outward (or even inward) indications as to just who these people are. Sutherland's blankness is just as bad as Lloyd's. He's a child lost in a battle between men, a talented young actor woefully out of place in a World War II crime drama. Lloyd and Sutherland are not miscast as much as misled, taken for a story ride that has neither the character nor scripted lines to properly experience.
Chicago Joe and the Showgirl may have worked had it been filled with more mature, more centered leads. But the odd, almost confrontational manner in which this narrative tells its tale constantly harms the potential thrills. This is a story of young lovers crossing over to the wrong side of the law, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps as a means of escaping the war torn hardships of their lives, or perhaps to impress the other into sex. It is also a story of false fronts and deceptive interpersonal lies. But with everyone shape-shifting their personality for the first 45 minutes, we can barely get a handle on who's what and why they are doing such horrible deeds. At a certain point, the characters are supposed to be living on the edge, constantly under the threat of discovery and testing each other's loyalty. But one can never feel suspense for people we care nothing about, and since Chicago Joe and the Showgirl holds all its major revelations until the last ten minutes, we are stuck -- stuck plodding through pointless scenes of meaningless endearments; stuck watching Sutherland play sainted GI fiancé to Patsy Kensit and family (a completely futile subplot) and drippy Dillinger to Lloyd's lame lady in red; and stuck seeing Rose waste wonderfully evocative shots, sets (city blocks in ruins, the London skyline during the blackout), and wartime details (Lloyd's homemade make-up hints) on what is ultimately a very unsatisfying film. David Yallop's script does try for a last minute save, and the revelations are so fundamental that they nearly resurrect the previous paltry offerings, but in reality, we have long since stopped being concerned and the final moments of the film only make you wish that different actors and a more direct approach had been applied to this could have been interesting incident (it is based on a real life case from the UK called "The Cleft Chin Murders"). Rose has a wonderful style and can call up atmosphere and drama out of the ether, but Chicago Joe and the Showgirl is like a stunt explained by a child who doesn't have all the facts. It's tantalizing but tedious.
Not that you would know any of this from the DVD presentation of Chicago Joe and the Showgirl. Artisan allows us to take a trip down Memorex lane as we are offered a visibly VHS image and package on the digital medium. The full screen transfer is awful, looking overly dark, far too blue/gray and flat. The center cut creation means that we miss many of Rose's more ambitious matte shots and composition insights. The Dolby Digital Surround in 2.0 is just basic, allowing us the opportunity to hear the dialogue clearly and the evocative use of big band standards (including Glenn Miller's magnificently moody "Moonlight Serenade"). But without a featurette, an explanation of the real case from which this all was drawn, or a commentary to allow Rose to defend his vision and choices, the bare bone bunkum that's standard for tarty Arty is one huge disappointment.
Chicago Joe and the Showgirl is no great film, but to treat it like some made-for-TV biopic of an unknown Midwestern gangster and his ditzy moll is itself a crime. While overly ambitious and hampered by a couple of lifeless leads, this is still a movie that tries to mean something more. Unfortunately, we never really figure out what that is, even with the final revelatory moments trying their best. This is one mixture of fantasy and reality that should have been saved for a more accomplished pair of performers.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R