Miramax // 2004 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 29th, 2005
A new comedy about following your own lead.
Japanese writer-director Masayaki Suo's 1996 comedy (unseen by me) gets Americanized. Because what the original was lacking was more J. Lo.
Middle-aged estate lawyer John Clark (Richard Gere, Primal Fear, Chicago) has hit a rut in his life: He's just passed another birthday, and his wife (Susan Sarandon, Alfie (2004)) has pointed out to him that he "doesn't want anything that comes in a box." He's happy -- or, at least, content -- with simple things, like having cake with his family, but knows that she's right -- his life, devoted to paperwork and the legalities of dying -- is missing a spark.
Then, one night, on his usual El ride home from the office, he sees a woman in the window of a dance studio. She's Paulina (Jennifer Lopez, Out of Sight), an instructor at the studio, and before long John finds himself signing up for weekly ballroom dance lessons. The more he dances, the more he learns that he loves it -- and the more he's able to find out about the mysterious and badly wounded instructor in whom John recognizes so much of himself. With a big dance contest coming around the corner, and suspicions of adultery from his in-the-dark wife, John's commitment to his newfound love will be put to the test.
There is a scene in the last half hour of Peter Chelsom's remake of Shall We Dance that perfectly summarizes both the good and the bad (and there's a considerable amount of both) of the movie: Stanley Tucci (Sidewalks of New York, The Core), playing a dweebish office worker supposedly obsessed with sports statistics, has just been found out. His secret shame/joy is ballroom dancing, and his co-workers, having discovered pictures of him cutting a rug in a recent dance contest, react with mocking speculation about his sexual orientation. Tucci, overhearing the laughter, comes marching out of his office. He offers his hand to a secretary, spins her around once or twice, and sits her back down. Walking away, he utters the movie's single best and funniest line, which I cannot repeat here but which is perfectly timed and delivered, and slams the door to his office. The disaster of his dancing-with-the-secretary defiance is immediately redeemed by the moment that follows; the first half of the scene is so forced, and the payoff so simple and honest, that neither of the contrasting tones is given a fair shake. You can almost split it right down the middle.
Such is the case with most of Shall We Dance, an uneasy mix of a movie that contains moments of quiet sweetness and genuine insight butting up against a hackneyed Hollywood formula and a half-dozen too-broadly drawn supporting characters. I liked Stanley Tucci's estate lawyer / closeted dance lover, for example, and the way he managed to be so honest with himself and so dishonest with those around him, but the screenplay also insists on saddling him with the ridiculous habit of posing as a fiery Latino (complete with an awful Antonio Banderas wig) when he dances. What purpose does this serve? None, I suspect, other than to offer cheap laughs for the simpler-minded (and the inevitable scene where the wig comes off at precisely the wrong time). It's too bad that the filmmakers couldn't have left Tucci's character well enough alone.
What those filmmakers don't seem to understand -- or choose not to -- is that the movie isn't about dancing any more than, say, Boogie Nights is about pornography; it's simply the venue through which the characters learn more about themselves. Dancing works beautifully, though, as it requires a special kind of confidence -- a physical grace combined with the willingness to risk embarrassment. For Gere's character, it's an appropriate metaphor for the change in his condition. Had the filmmakers acknowledged that, though, they couldn't have filled the film with MTV-style dance sequences or the dreaded "big dance contest" scene. Why American audiences must have everything quantified and turned into a competition is beyond me; couldn't the film simply be about a guy's love for dance without having to suggest that he's become "the best" at it? Sure, there is an attempt to tweak the conventional expectations, but the very inclusion of the contest is a miscalculation. The movie is not about dancing skill; Gere's character could have been terrible at dancing but still loved it, and the central theme would have remained the same.
The key problem with Shall We Dance, and it's a big one, is Jennifer Lopez's dance instructor character. It's not that it's acted particularly poorly (though Lopez doesn't hold a candle to Gere's subtle and dignified work; anyone else notice that he's quietly amassed a resume of impressive performances over the years? For a Hollywood star, he's awfully underrated), just that the character itself is entirely unnecessary. You can see the Hollywood machination at work, forcing in another "star part" where it doesn't belong -- that's why Lopez is given so much screen time, so much backstory. The problem is that Shall We Dance is not her story -- it's Gere's. It's the story of an unhappy man who finds himself through dance; if she's the one who teaches him the how-to's, so be it, but that's as far as it should go. (I did appreciate that the movie mostly steered clear of the easy "love that cannot be" plotline and kept the relationship as teacher / student. Mostly.) Time and again, the movie cuts away from Gere's story to shots of Lopez looking damaged and gloomy, but it's not her story. Once again, the movie splits itself right down the middle: The Gere stuff works, the Lopez stuff doesn't.
Don't believe me? See the film and pay close attention the scene in which Gere and Sarandon dance together (silly, sure, but saved by the actors). The two are so comfortable in their middle age -- it doesn't hurt that they look this damn good -- and have such an easy chemistry that the moment overcomes its own ridiculousness and becomes incredibly sweet. It's disrupted, though, when the story cuts back to resolve the Lopez subplot as though it's her story. If you're not bothered by this, then this movie has been made for you. If you're anything like me, you'll be wishing the story could have remained with the "old people." They're so much more interesting.
The DVD of Shall We Dance, courtesy of Buena Vista (the movie is produced by Miramax, which is still owned by Disney for the time being), is a good combination of technical accomplishment and supplemental material. It's no home run, but makes for a solid double. The feature is presented in a widescreen transfer in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, enhanced for 16x9 playback; the image is bright, sharp, and consistent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track shows a surprising amount of punch for a romantic comedy trifle. While it helps that soundtrack is boosted by nearly wall-to-wall music, even the dialogue is forceful and clear.
The first of a handful of extras included on the disc is a feature-length commentary by director Peter Chelsom (who, with credits that include Town And Country and Serendipity, doesn't seem to be a very good director -- or, at least, is a poor judge of material). His talk is fairly technical and dry, suggesting that the only ideas he brought to the material are those that don't really work. He also speaks over a collection of deleted scenes, which are pretty dispensable unless you're aching to see some more dancing footage. Also included on the disc are a making-of featurette (filled with the typical "So-and-So is a dream to work with" gushing); a short piece on ballroom dancing; another on the music of the film, in which the Miramax music supervisor all but admits to selling out to snag a younger demographic and move a few extra copies of the soundtrack; and (as if to prove my last point) a music video by the Pussycat Dolls, whom I thought to be professional strippers but are apparently pop stars.
I realize that I've gone through this entire review and not once mentioned that the movie also features the great character actor, Richard Jenkins (Flirting With Disaster), who automatically improves the quality of any movie just by appearing in it. Here, he plays a private detective hired by Sarandon to track her husband's movements. It's a subplot that's too contrived and sitcom-ish to work, but Jenkins and Sarandon infuse their scenes with such experience and subtext that they're among the best moments in the movie.
See? Split right down the middle.
As much as I admired the work of Gere, Sarandon, and Jenkins, the Court moves to lock all participants of Shall We Dance in a confined space until they can all get on the same page. Let's just hope it's the right one.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary Featuring Director Peter Chelsom
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
* Featurette: "The Music of Shall We Dance"
* Featurette: "Beginners' Ballroom"
* Music Video: "Sway" by the Pussycat Dolls
* Official Site