The scars from Judge Neal Masri's difficult childhood were healed with healthy doses of the lambada.
When destiny leads, love follows.
Dance is a very powerful drug, Mr. Keane. If embraced judiciously, it can exorcise demons, access deep-seated emotion, and color your life in joyous shades of brilliant magenta that you never knew existed.
The degree to which you agree with the preceding statement from Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School may very well determine how much you will enjoy this movie.
Facts of the Case
Frankie Keane (Robert Carlyle, The Full Monty) is a lonely widower. In the opening sequence, he encounters a stranger who has been injured in a serious car accident on a deserted road. The stranger's name is Steve Mills (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski) and he was on his way to keep an appointment he made nearly forty years ago. Steve had agreed that he would meet his childhood sweetheart on the fifth day of the fifth month of the new millennium at Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School.
When Steve is unable to keep the date, Frankie decides to go in his stead. In his class he meets a menagerie of quirky characters. Almost as quirky are the men in his support group for widowers. These two groups are the focus of the movie and Frankie's lifelines. Before long, Frankie finds himself romantically involved with one of the dance class members. As he learns ballroom dancing, Frankie is also learning how to heal. Will he also learn to love again?
The protagonist, Frankie, divides his time between two surprisingly similar groups—his widower support group and a ballroom dance class. Everyone attending each seems somewhat of a lost soul. An interesting parallel emerges. Like his support group, Frankie's dance class seems mostly to be a source of release and fellowship to its attendees. Learning to do the Lindy Hop is only icing on the cake. Interestingly, the dance class seems a more effective support group for Frankie than his widower counterparts. As the film progresses, Frankie's support group and his dance class merge. Apparently, Frankie is not the only one who finds dancing to be good therapy.
Marilyn Hotchkiss features a formidable ensemble cast including Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny), Mary Steenburgen (Elf), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), Danny DeVito (Be Cool), Sonia Braga (Angel Eyes), and several other familiar faces. Special mention should go to Donnie Wahlberg (Saw II) as a Michael Flatley wannabe in the dance class. Donnie has quietly turned out to be a better, more interesting actor than his brother Mark. Strong performances by all involved help to sell a storyline that feels a bit movie-of-the-week.
Characters with broken hearts or broken dreams populate this film. This leads me to a question: Is 104 minutes way too long to spend with about a dozen depressed and gloomy characters? That depends. Is the payoff for spending time in this atmosphere of gloom worth it? My answer is a qualified yes. In a passing nod to reality not every character finds love and redemption. However, there is enough good feeling generated at the end that one feels a bit of catharsis from all the depression that came before.
I found the technical presentation to be above par for a low budgeted film like this. Video quality varies throughout the film. The movie alternates between soft light, blue filters, and a vintage film look. The flashback sequences were filmed on 16mm film and, as such, have a grainy quality. The commentary makes clear that many of the visual quirks of the film were quite intentional and the DVD appears to represent the source material well. Mark Adler's score and the copious ballroom dance music come through adequately. Dialogue is clear.
A short film of the same name made by director Randall Miller (The Sixth Man) 15 years ago is included as an extra. The director has done an interesting thing by expanding the original short film. The original piece tells the tale of the Goodman character's childhood in a Wonder Years-style nostalgic flashback. By making him a minor character in the feature film, Miller has added a layer of bittersweet emotion to what was originally a comic piece. A commentary by the director, his wife (co-producer and writer), and actor Eldon Henson is also included. It's a lively track with all participants recorded together. Interested viewers will find a wealth of information about how the cast was assembled and how a small short film grew into this project.
It's quite obvious that this movie is a labor of love by the filmmakers and cast. All of the big name actors involved worked for far less than their usual fees. I can see how the script and the story attracted them. I must admit that I have a soft spot for small movies with big ambitions. Even if you don't buy into the therapeutic powers of dance, the message of healing and moving on is one that should resonate.
Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is old fashioned in the sense that it lacks cynicism and ironic subtext beneath its simple story. More than once I thought to myself, They don't make many movies like this anymore. I leave it to the individual viewer to decide whether that old school sensibility is good or bad.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not all of the character threads are followed to any sort of resolution. There are a few too many actors in the ensemble to give everyone a satisfying storyline. We get to know Frankie and Marisa Tomei's character, Meredith, but not anyone else. There is a lot of talent in the cast and most of it, unfortunately, goes untapped.
This movie wears its heart on its sleeve. It succeeds by managing to stay just barely shy of saccharine sweetness. It flirts with crossing that line several times, but only the most cynical viewer will not be a little touched.
Not guilty by a hair.
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