Film Review

Shall We Dance

Directed by Peter Chelsom

Miramax Films

Director Peter Chelsom’s new movie, Shall We Dance?, has a dance card full of big-name actors but leaves its audience with little except bruised toes. A remake of Japanese director Masayuki Suo’s 1996 film of the same title—from which it imports most scenes and some dialogue—the movie ultimately seems as bungling on its feet as many of the characters it portrays.

John Clark (Richard Gere) is a middle-aged lawyer living in a posh Chicago apartment with his wife (Susan Sarandon) and teenage daughter. Still, he’s unhappy—and, in a movie whose characters never exceed tide-pool depth, it doesn’t seem to matter that we never know why. “It’s not true that I don’t want anything,” he whispers to his wife one night.

What Clark wants, apparently, is to ballroom dance. During his nightly subway ride home, he spies a woman staring out the window of Miss Mitzi’s Dance Studio and, rapt by her poise, he decides to enroll secretly for beginner’s lessons.

In Suo’s Japanese film this is understandably mortifying because, as a voiceover tells us at the outset, “In a country where married couples don’t go out arm in arm…the idea that a husband and wife should embrace and dance in front of others is beyond embarrassing.”

But Chelsom never explains what makes ballroom dance equally taboo in 21st-century Chicago. He tries to plug this plot hole subliminally instead by making Miss Mitzi’s look a lot like a brothel, but it’s hard to salvage a bungled plot with neon lighting and sweaty-palmed patrons.

In dance class, Clark meets a parade of characters—including Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), the loud, obnoxious dance partner whom no one seems to want, and Link Peterson (Stanley Tucci), a co-worker of Clark’s who secretly dons sequins and a shaggy wig to become a frenetic mambo dancer. As Mr. Clark and his two-stepping entourage spend their evenings preparing for an amateur competition, his wife suspects that he might be having an affair and hires a private detective (Richard Jenkins) to track him down.

The woman in Miss Mitzi’s window who enticed Mr. Clark into class turns out to be Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer hiding out at the dance school as an instructor after being spurned by her lover and dance partner at the world’s top dance competition.

She now spends most free moments staring blankly out windows or crying—bursting into tears even when Bobbie spills a microwave dinner on her suede coat (she knows it won’t wash out, we learn, because she comes from a family of dry cleaners). Glamorous Lopez tries to manage this cold-fish role only by wearing a squinty, stiff-faced expression that makes it look as though she’s not only sedated but, perhaps, freshly escaped from an incomplete endoscopy.

Still, Paulina eventually warms to “Mr. Clark” enough to dance a sultry rumba with him at the film’s aesthetic climax. It’s easy to relish their pairing, sharply choreographed and luxuriantly filmed in a suffusion of yellow light. It’s harder to understand what impelled Chelsom to edit the dance by periodically slowing motion to a crawl—a technique better suited for action sequences in films like The Matrix. Whenever it speeds up again Lopez’s neck whips across the screen, evoking back pain as much as passion.

The broader trouble is that Chelsom appears to have little idea why the movie’s storyline might be funny. Suo’s earlier version worked because it planted an absurd conceit in what, from start to finish, pretended to be a serious film about the sort of people who work in fluorescent-lit cubicles.

Chelsom attempts to baste this absurdity—which has little basis in a culture where ballroom isn’t taboo—in the easy comedy and gentle camp of a date movie. After an hour and a half of marination, what comes out of the oven is something turgid and weirdly bent out of shape.

Susan Sarandon alone seems determined not to play her role as a caricature and stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast as a result. It’s not surprising that her character seems the most genuine: when the possibility of an affair disappears, Mrs. Clark is pretty nonplussed by her husband’s sashaying shenanigans and never quite understands what all the fuss is about.

In the end, neither do we. Abandoning self-consciousness can be fun, as the film shows us, but still we can’t help wishing that the movie and its characters would hazard an occasional look in the mirror.