It's almost a miracle that despite numerous problems–a cultural context that's implausible, characters that are too old, a cast-against-type Richard Gere, a wooden Jennifer Lopez, clumsy direction–that Shall We Dance the American remake of the 1996 Japanese hit, is an enjoyable film.
As Strictly Ballroom (a better and more pleasurable picture) showed, dance films about “ordinary” people have a built-in appeal that even a hack like Peter Chelsom can't destroy. In its current form, Shall We Dance is a date film for the middle-aged crowd, an uplifting picture that wants to have it both ways: reaffirm traditional values like bourgeois marriages while at the same time embracing some edgier fun, like Rumba dancing.
What was poignant and charming in Masayuki Suo's film, which was a runaway hit in Japan and the U.S., has become obvious and formulaic in the American version, written by Audrey Wells and poorly directed by Chelsom. You may recall that Chelsom's latest outings include the disastrous Town & Country (which also featured older stars like Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn) and the barely watchable Serendipity.
To be sure, the Japanese version was not a particularly good film, but audiences rooted for its shy, reticent protagonist, an overachieving business man who, in defiance of cultural taboos, signs up for dance classes and in the process learns the price of selfish concerns and the new joy of teamwork and camaraderie with a bunch of lovable and goofy misfits.
In the American remake, John Clark (Gere) is a successful businessman, happily married to a beautiful and understating wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), and father of two. Going through male menopause, a result of routine workdays, a commute that's a grind, and a family that's too busy to spend any quality time together, something is missing from his life: Excitement. Clark is a quiet workaholic whose midlife crisis is also experienced in a quiet way, though inside he's boiling with restlessness for something more seductive.
Riding the El, Clark can't help but notice the sad face of a beautiful woman who stands by the window of an old building, which turns out to be a run-down dance studio, Mitzi's. The young woman, Paulina (Lopez), stares back at Clark. Haunted by her gaze, Clark finally pulls courage and gets off the train. With doubts and hesitations, he signs up for the beginner's lessons of ballroom dance, hoping that Paulina will be his teacher.
But Clark is unable to tell Beverly about his newfound love, fearing she'll think he is unfulfilled by their marriage. Chelsom milks broad humor out of stock situations, such as Clark's daughter spying on him while he rehearses secretly in the bedroom. Predictably, as Clark prepares clandestinely for Chicago's biggest dance competition, his secretive behavior causes Beverly to hire a detective, suspecting, as any wife in her position would, that he's having an affair.
Most of the humor derives from Clark's interactions with his fellow classmates, all recognizable stereotypes. They include: Link Peterson (Stanley Tucci), an office geek by day at Clark's law firm, who has an outrageous alter ego that bursts out during Latin dances at night; Chic (Bobby Cannavale), a handsome man who signs up for the purpose of picking up women; Vern (Omar Miller), a chubby youngster who claims he's learning to dance for a mysterious fianc and Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), an angry woman with a bad history with men.
The narrative logic of Shall We Dance is that of an old-fashioned service comedy, with Mitzi's school as a boot camp for dancers. The studio also serves as a psychological clinic with therapy sessions, as each of the character has a problem to overcome or a secret to disclose. We have seen all of this before in sports fable-movies.
Unfortunately, there are only a few rousing “training” montages set to peppy pop songs. During the preparation for the big competition, we wait and wait for the inevitable lessons to be learned by Clark, that real personal triumph means teamwork, coupled with the art of being a strong leader. The message, that it's O.K. to cherish personal dreams but it's even better to share them with closed ones, becomes banal by the time it's spelled out, and presented.
At this phase of his career, to cast Gere as a shy, awkward man with two left feet is to stretch credibility to the limit, particularly after his turn in the musical Chicago. And to ask him to play a “typical” professional, when he has built his career on charismatic presence and eccentricity creates further problems. Similarly, Sarandon is too old, bright, and vibrant to play a boring housewife. Lopez is also not used to an advantage. She looks good but is stuck with the film's least satisfying part, a disillusioned champion who needs to recover her desire to compete again.
Chelsom is a director who can't sustain any continuity. Instead of promoting the story through its buoyant dance numbers and spirited comedy, he falls into a repetitive pattern, in which a tedious family scene is followed by a dance number, and back again. As a director, he employs the most routine and gratuitous reaction shots during the triumphant finish. For a dance musical, Shall We Dance is a particularly graceless and rhythmless picture.
Chelsom doesn't capture the kinetic magic of ballroom dancing, which reportedly has surged in popularity all over the world. Ballroom is a uniquely transposing style, featuring a couple that glides across a bare floor, while disregarding the outside world and responding only to the music and one another. Each individual dance has its own creative pulse, its own spirit and emotion, appeal to the spirit, from rumba's raw eroticism waltz's intimate charm. However, in this picture, only at the very end, we sense the sheer thrills of flying around the room in the arms of a partner who knows your moves and gestures better than your own family.
Great romantic musicals exhilarate the audience, but Shall We Dance doesn't have enough dance sequences to let the formulaic story slide by. It's a shame, because ballroom dancing, with its built-in fluidity and eroticism, is a highly cinematic art form.