Shall We Dance?

Rated PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Peter Chelsom. Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Lopez, Stanley Tucci, Anita Gillette, Lisa Ann Walter, Bobby Cannavale, Omar Miller, Richard Jenkins.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 15, 2004

Shall We Dance? Gene Kelly expressed it best in Singin’ in the Rain, when he ebulliently proclaimed in song: "Got-ta dance, got-ta dance, got-ta daaaaance!" In other words, when a guy needs to trip the light fantastic, nothing better stand in his way. In Shall We Dance?, the Americanized remake of a 1996 Japanese film of the same name, a workaholic Chicago attorney stuck in the rut of contemporary life unexpectedly finds relief in the form of ballroom dancing lessons. Initially, this married man’s motive for taking night classes at Miss Mitzi’s Dance School is suspect. Every evening on his commute home to the suburbs, John Clark has seen a sad, young woman (a subdued Lopez) gazing out of the dance studio’s second-story window. One night, he impetuously hops off the train to meet this beautiful enigma and, in embarrassment, ends up signing up for the studio’s beginner’s course. While the screenplay by Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun, The Truth About Cats & Dog)s coyly flirts with the notion that John is contemplating something more than a rumba lesson, Gere’s performance communicates a boyish innocence that eventually leads you to conclude that he’s only trying to connect with someone who, as he puts it, looks on the outside the way he feels on the inside. The only trouble is, Shall We Dance? doesn’t effectively communicate the depth of John’s despair before he finds salvation in the clandestine joy of dance. True, his life is no day at the beach – he makes a living by drafting wills, for chrissake, and work schedules leave little room for romantic intimacy with his wife of 19 years. But it’s hardly the life of quiet desperation against which the filmmakers wish to contrast John’s existence once he sets his terpsichorean muse free. Comparisons with the exquisite Japanese film upon which Shall We Dance? is based are inevitable. The best way to compare the two is by analogy: While the original is a subtly executed waltz in three-quarter time, the remake is a showier samba with little nuance. Many of the graceful images of the Japanese film are re-created here – shuffling feet practicing dance steps under an office desk, a lone dancer twirling under the street lamp of a deserted train stop – but they’re unfortunately not as evocative. And in elevating the wife’s character to equal status with the dance instructor and her unlikely pupil, this version of the story opts for a dramatic structure that often trivializes the film’s core message about breaking free of societal molds in favor of soap operatics. (John hides his new passion from his wife, children, and most of his co-workers out of shame and fear.) Nonetheless, it’s hard not to get caught up in this film, despite its many flaws, primarily because Gere makes for a sympathetic figure, a middle-aged man just wanting to feel something new in the autumn of his life. When it works, Shall We Dance? has a way of sweeping you off your feet.
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