IN VAUDEVILLE, TIMING WAS EVERYTHING. THE drumbeat, the thwack, the punch line; the tickle and slap of a sight gag; the wink, the nudge, the shimmy, and all that jazz. If theater has always done certain gestures without apology, musical theater does them brazenly: Characters still swing into song in the midst of otherwise quotidian chores; a ragtag crowd might combust into a gyrating entity. And in Chicago the stage production — subtitled “A Musical Vaudeville” — chorus girl Roxie Hart plugs Fred Casely, her furniture-selling paramour, while vaudeville star Velma Kelly purrs her way through the mood-setting tune “All That Jazz.” “Nobody walks out on me,” Roxie shouts. Bang. “Sweetheart,” he groans. “Don't 'sweetheart me,' you son of a bitch.” Bang again. Roxie then gilds this chilled act of passion with a memorable simper: “I gotta pee.”

In Chicago the movie, directed by Rob Marshall, Roxie Hart is a softer creature. This is no cop-out. Murderers are typically rank narcissists, blind to the emotional havoc of their deeds yet painfully sensitive to their own discomfort. Roxie is no different. Yet Renée Zellweger offers a portrait of blond ambition that sways persuasively between timidity and temerity. Roxie's attempt to parlay infamy into fame, murder into a show-biz career still begins with a bang, but before she snuffs out the cad's life she shares her — well, dreams would be too starry-eyed a word. Business plan is more like it. Everyone has a shtick. “My thing could be aloof,” says Roxie, yammering in a way that makes plain that “aloof” is a foreign land Roxie's never set foot in.

That Roxie is perp not victim here says something about the gals who inspired Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins to write the play Chicago, originally called The Brave Little Woman, which premiered in 1926. Two years earlier, 20-year-old Beulah Annan, married to a mechanic, was accused of shooting her lover. At the same time, Mrs. Belva Gaertner was being tried for killing her lover. They became jailhouse friends, even posing together for a tabloid photo. Each was acquitted, Beulah with the able assist of showman lawyer W.W. O'Brien.

Chicago's Roxie and Velma have a more competitive bond. (“I hate you,” Roxie tells Velma at one point. “There's only one business in the world where that's not a problem,” Velma reminds her.) Still, many of the facts remain: Roxie's got a rube of a husband in Amos Hart (John C. Reilly) and a knight in Teflon armor in lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). The two women are in prison at the same time, doing their diva turns in Cook County Jail (lorded over by Queen Latifah's amusingly corrupt warden and booking agent, Matron Mama).

John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse's musical adaptation of Watkins' play opened on Broadway in 1975 and has been awaiting its close-up for more than 25 years. Since the mid-'90s, a fair amount has been written about the various names attached to this tortuous transformation, among them Madonna, who was once onboard to play the role of Velma Kelly, which ultimately went to Catherine Zeta-Jones. But it was Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) who figured out the elegant solution that gives the musical numbers their cinematic and emotional integrity. By making nearly every red-and-blue-bathed number Roxie's projection, the filmmakers have created a psychological musical. Moving fluidly between Roxie's gallows-courting reality and her stagy, hallucinatory daydreams, the film cuts to the heart of some perennial cultural conundrums: Why does the fan's fond gaze become devouring? Why does ardor give way to envy? How is it that certain dreams become criminal, and certain crimes become causes célèbres? If these strike you as slightly tattered concerns, it's possibly because these days the national mood is more Cabaret (the truly great adaptation of the other Ebb, Kander, Fosse musical) than Chicago, more imperial menace than fever dream of overidentification. Not to worry. Give it 15 minutes. There's sure to be another trial of the century. In the meantime, Chicago is that rare thing: a nutritious hard candy.

WHILE MARSHALL (WHOSE OTHER DIRECTING credits are television's Cinderella and the Emmy-winning Annie) is generally cautious with camera movement, he dazzles with the interplay between Roxie's life troubles and her defensive fantasies. On this count, Chicago delivers precision timing beyond the deft rhythms of the original. Arguably, the most pointed of these comes when Roxie and Billy Flynn hold a press conference. The scene swings freely from courthouse photo-op to a song-and-dance number, “We Both Reached for the Gun,” in which Billy plays ventriloquist to Roxie's dummy. Mouthpiece, indeed: Looking wooden and shellacked, Roxie sits atop her slick lawyer's lap as he feeds her lines to deliver to a greedy press. And because imaginative subtlety is not Roxie's strong suit, when Billy's not animating her, she envisions him literally jerking the reporters' strings. The exuberance of the number is matched only by its arch and familiar message: The media gets played. Why? Because it wants to. The most pliant of the reporters, Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski), hands Billy a glass of milk. He drinks up even as he hits his final, robust note.

Gere's knowing smirk is right at home on Billy Flynn's arrogant mug. Yet it's his goofball glee — and his better-than-good singing — that's the most pleasing, even as it reminds us that courtroom charmers like Flynn are in the biz, the legal profession, because of the pleasure in putting on a show. Zellweger yet again refines her gift for wavering between self-opacity and startled self-awareness. Despite her calculations, Roxie is no Eve Harrington: But then again, Eve never murdered anyone. You get the sense that Zellweger's Roxie will always be a work in progress.

As for Catherine Zeta-Jones' Velma Kelly: Sometime in the recent past, in some darkened screening room, the folks at Miramax might have thought as they watched the Guy Ritchie-Madonna remake of Swept Away, “There but for the grace of God.” Chicago's Velma must exude from the jump an utter confidence that Madonna hasn't shown onscreen since Desperately Seeking Susan. Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, is so naturally self-assured she can hawk T-Mobile 24/7 and never imagine she's slumming. Her Velma growls her songs — and does a not-half-bad channeling of Cyd Charisse. And when, finally, Velma has to grovel, Zeta-Jones offers an emotional photo neg to Zellweger's aggressive tentativeness: a kind of pleading varnished by bravado. When it comes to Velma, Roxie was always right: She really does have a quality Roxie lacks. Is it any wonder in the end they take their act to the stage? These “killer dillers,” these “sinners,” they complete each other.

CHICAGO | Directed by ROB MARSHALL | Written by FRED EBB, BOB FOSSE, BILL CONDON, from the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins | Produced by MARTY RICHARDS and BOB WEINSTEIN | Released by Mirimax Films | At selected theaters

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