OK, so you're kinda blue in the way people who have everything can get blue. You know how it is. You have a good job and a good family. You're materially comfortable and emotionally secure. So, of course, you're bummed out because you can't even figure out what to want that you don't have or couldn't get. How's life any fun with nothing to yearn for and whine about? Mid-life crisis, thy name is upper middle class male. What to do? You're not a drinker. You wouldn't risk your family's home or beautiful children's education by gambling. You're not a pervert, so you wouldn't want to frequent prostitutes. You're not that big a sports fan. Wait, wait, now you've got it! You'll take up ballroom dancing and let the sun shine again. Such is the premise of Masayuki Suo's 1996 hit film, Shall We Dance?, which worked pretty well set in its Japanese culture, and it's now the premise of Peter Chelsom's current American remake where it doesn't work nearly as well.
Written by Audrey Wells, Shall We Dance? is the story of Chicago estate attorney John Clark (Richard Gere) whose wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), is a retail clothing executive. They live in the leafy suburbs and commute into the city by train. At home they have wonderful family birthday parties with their two teenage children. And so that makes the blahs all the blasted worse. Why does everything always have to be so damn perfect? Now one might think John could explore philanthropy or civic involvement. He could volunteer to work with the homeless or the disabled. But why would he undertake activities that might provide balm for a troubled soul when he can sneak off and take dancing lessons?
Of course, one might decide to read the early part of this flick as John's attempt to get close and sweaty with a dance instructor named Paulina (Jennifer Lopez, who gives good pose but despite her undeniable rhythm never manages to convince us she's a champion ballroom dancer). Sure, she's striking, and after about a dozen lessons John does chat her up a bit. But I think grown men and women can share a flirtatious attraction without their venturing anywhere near the sack, and whatever the chemistry between John and Paulina, it never threatens to lead to sex. Moreover, he keeps on dancing well after it's clear their relationship isn't headed for the bedroom.
Don't get me wrong. Dancing is fun and good exercise. Dancing lessons are a perfectly legitimate activity. I have taken and enjoyed them myself. But I took them with my wife, and this picture doesn't begin to address why John deliberately conceals his dancing lessons from a wife he adores. Then there's the problem of how he can conceivably manage to concoct enough excuses for arriving home from work hours late and inexplicably damp every Wednesday night (and eventually every Thursday, too) for months. On one hand, the picture demands that we see John and Beverly's marriage as rock solid and entirely loving, and on the other hand, we're asked to assume that Beverly is the least attentive and least curious wife in the history of matrimony.
Shall We Dance? makes other curious decisions, as well. The core story intends to be serious, the joy of dance a responsible antidote to depression. But all around the edges the story goes for comedy, often of the broadest kind. John trips and pratfalls over canes his dance instructor (Anita Gillette) uses to train men where to put their hands and how to hold their arms. John steps on his partner's frilly dress which rips away leaving her in just her underpants. When John discovers that fellow lawyer Link Peterson (Stanley Tucci in a flamboyantly over-the-top performance that needed to be dialed back by half) also takes dancing lessons, they begin practicing together in the men's room at their law firm, and if you can't predict where that's heading, you haven't ever been to a movie.
In short, the movie never settles on a tone. The comedy is amateur-theater corny while the ending is so lovey-dovey sappy it left me squirming, all the more so because director Chelsom (who also directed Town and Country) couldn't resist placing an emotional chorus in the scene to tell me just how stirred I was supposed to feel. But I recognize that I am being hard on this movie. The film has laudable values and a smart understanding that shared experiences are treasures we seldom praise but intuitively grasp. As Beverly expresses it, spouses are more than lovers and friends; they are witnesses for one another's lives. And John proves winning when he tells Beverly of his shame for feeling unhappy when he knew how much he had to be grateful for. Still, good intentions don't translate directly into good storytelling. And Shall We Dance? mires its very capable cast in a script as gooey as a bucket of ribbon cane.
- Eyes on the prize: John (Richard Gere) takes lessons from Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) to spice up his otherwise ideal marriage in the sappy Shall We Dance?