Shall We Dance / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
What did Jennifer Lopez ever do to anyone? Does she suffocate kittens for fun? Does she go to retirement homes and beat up octogenarians? If everyone was so annoyed with the Bennifer phenomenon, why was she blamed and not the National Enquirer, People, or “Access Hollywood” or the scores of people who bought those magazines and watched those shows? Sure, Gigli was bad, but in a year that also saw the release of From Justin to Kelly and Final Destination 2, did it really deserve to sweep the Razzies? And was it fair the way she was tossed aside in the promotion of Jersey Girl, with Kevin Smith revealing her “twist” death in advance as a marketing ploy (come see the movie — we promise she’ll be gone in the first 15 minutes)? Sure, she has a limited dramatic range and her music is uninventive and overproduced, but must she appear in Shall We Dance?
Well, apparently the answer to the last one is “barely.” Shall We Dance? is mostly Richard Gere’s movie, and he’s brought his full range of smirks and eye twinkles to the party. He plays a man who’s bored with his tranquil routine as a probate attorney in Chicago and husband and father to his picture-perfect family in the elegant North Shore suburbs. The role neatly combines aspects of his last two film roles: In Chicago, he was a lawyer working in the titular city, and in Unfaithful, his wife gets tired of their happy home and has a wild fling. Gere’s John Clark, though, is just about as exciting as his name, so he just takes dance lessons. And to think that Diane Lane got restless.
John enrolls in ballroom classes to meet la Lopez after he’s seen her gazing wistfully out the window of Miss Mitzi’s Dance School. There’s the obvious implication that he’d like to have an affair with her character, but even he doesn’t seem sure what he wants, only that he’s felt an impulse for the first time in ages, so he might as well act on it. Unfortunately for him (and us), Lopez’s character, Paulina, teaches only the advanced students, whereas he’s a beginner, stuck in a class taught by Miss Mitzi herself (Anita Gillette) and populated only by the heavyset, glum Vern (Omar Miller) and Chic (like a baby chicken, not like the French for fashionable) a Tony Manero-wannabe played by Bobby Cannavale. Through the dance studio, he also meets the trashy-but-loveable Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter) and bumps into a legal colleague and closet dance fiend, Link Peterson (Stanley Tucci). Soon, dancing has taken over his life, the dance studio friends have become a surrogate family, and he has regained the vigor and joie de vivre he was missing. Isn’t that sweet? Except that Gere is so used to working his charm that the difference is indistinguishable. If he’s all cute and twinkly in the early scenes where he’s supposed to be evincing spiritual malaise, how are we supposed to know that he really means it when he’s cute and twinkly later?
Shall We Dance? is based, a little too faithfully, on a 1996 Japanese film of the same name. In Japan, though, ballroom dance is considered scandalous; it’s socially and professionally dangerous for the characters to indulge their passion. Here, it’s considered dull and conservative, so the frisson isn’t there, forcing the filmmakers (Peter Chelsom directed, from Audrey Wells’ adaptation of the Japanese script) to struggle throughout to work up some conflict. They just aren’t very good at it, and the movie is basically an hour and 40 minutes of dance scenes periodically interrupted by bursts of pompous speechifying and phony emotion. Scenes at home show that John’s marriage to Beverly (Susan Sarandon), an executive at Saks Fifth Avenue, has become stale and distant (their daughter has to point out that John’s spirits have improved). Beverly eventually gets curious enough about John’s late hours and shirts that smell of perfume that she hires a detective (Richard Jenkins) and his assistant Scotty (Nick Cannon) to find out what’s going on.
Jenkins and Cannon have surprisingly complementary comic styles, and their scenes are the best in the film — I dreaded leaving their office to return to the dance studio, but soon enough we do. After all, there are dances to be learned in time for the big competition! Yes, that’s right, the movie climaxes — shockingly — at a ballroom dance contest. Except, does it maybe climax a few minutes later at the department store? Or a few minutes after that at the going-away party? Or a still later at John’s office? Hell, just call it multi-orgasmic.
Shall We Dance? is a movie programmed to every imaginable demographic; it has ballroom dance for the older set, Ja Rule rapping for the teens, and a cast that includes most of your major ages, genders, and ethnicities. What it doesn’t have is any real point — it’s a love story with the lovers missing. Gere and Sarandon hardly share any scenes, and there’s no real sense of their bond (mostly I kept wondering how they ever cast Gere with a wife his age, but I guess the story dynamics are pretty different if he’s coming home to Winona Ryder or Julia Roberts). And the Gere/Lopez thing is such an obvious non-starter from the beginning that it never gathers any heat. If there is any meaning to be found here, perhaps it’s at the end, when Gere declares, “There is nothing wrong with ballroom dance!” It’s refreshing to see a film that’s really willing to take a bold, unequivocal position on such a controversial matter.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.