If the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez-fronted Shall We Dance? were indeed a dance, it would be something akin to the Macarena or the latest club dance craze. Crowd-pleasing. Fluffy fun. A temporary thrill.
In the opening scenes, John Clark (Gere), a successful Chicago lawyer, is going through his daily routine-rise early, mechanically kiss the wife goodbye, ride the El to work, spend all day buried in paperwork, go home late to an uber-busy family life. In case we somehow miss his ennui from these scenes and from his forlorn looks, Clark's voice-over explains a common question he fields when he's finished drawing up wills for his clients: "Is that it then?"
Into this life of quiet desperation waltzes J-Lo-literally. As he's riding home on the El one night, John sees Paulina (Lopez) staring with a matching melancholy expression out the window of Miss Mitzi's Dance School. After seeing her there three nights in a row, John impulsively hops off the train at the last minute one evening and follows her haunting countenance like a moth drawn to a lovely but dangerous flame. When he discovers this beautiful woman is a dance instructor, he signs up for ballroom dancing classes. And it's in this quirky little dance studio that the plot, kitschy characters, and John's well-ordered world unfold.
This soft-shoeing tale of being roused from life's ruts is based on a 1996 Japanese subtitled movie of the same name. In contrast to this American remake, if that flick were a dance, it would be a waltz. Nuanced. Sophisticated. A classic.
There are some fundamental reasons the Japanese version works better. In the opening scenes, a voice-over (likely added for American distribution) explains that in Japan, a country where even married couples don't touch in public or say "I love you," ballroom dancing is regarded with much suspicion. Therefore, when the main character, Shohei Sugiyama (who's more convincingly sullen than Gere's John), signs up for a dance class, he's really taking a risk. He might as well be having an affair, for the controversy this stirs. Also, in a culture known for workaholism and emotional distance even in marriage, it's much more believable that Sugiyama would be able to hide this new passion. And there's just something utterly charming about a stereotypically stoic Japanese businessman taking a ballroom dancing class. The surprising juxtaposition is one of the foundational strengths of the original movie. But in the U.S., countless "suits" take ballroom dancing classes; thus, the intrigue is missing.
Overall, the U.S. version is a pleasing, refreshingly clean romantic comedy that will no doubt draw raves from the chick flick-loving set (as well as inspire increased attendance in ballroom dancing classes everywhere). The characters are likable, the dance scenes are entertaining, and some of the action is laugh-out-loud funny. There are even a few life lessons nestled amidst the fancy footwork.
That said, there are a few plot flaws, mostly stemming from relocating this film from Japan to the U.S. Probably the most problematic of these is that the main character, John, seems too busy as opposed to emotionally numb and distanced from his family (as in the original). You get the sense John has a loving relationship with his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), and their two teenage children. While it's nice to see a family with close emotional ties, and it's relatable that their daily planners are on overdrive, it makes it less believable that a ballroom dancing class-one more activity in John's already jam-packed life-is going to help matters. We don't get the impression John needs "waking up" (as in the original) as much as he needs a long vacation with his wife. So taking a ballroom dancing class without her seems like it would only exacerbate his problems.
In addition, where on earth do Beverly and the kids think John is all the time he's learning how to fox trot, waltz, and rumba? Yes, Beverly eventually gets suspicious that John's having an affair and hires a private detective to see what he's up to. But that, too, seems unbelievable. Why wouldn't this strong career woman just ask? In the original, we believe the wife wouldn't pry because the culture dictates that you don't discuss such delicate matters. But in the U.S., where tabloids and Springer set the tell-all tone, you wonder why Beverly doesn't simply turn to John one night in bed and mutter, "So, where ya been?"
While the supporting characters are likable, they would have been lovable if not written so one-dimensionally. John's dance classmates, Chic (Bobby Cannavale) and Vern (Omar Benson Miller), and eventual dance partner Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), are all textbook as the womanizing stud, clumsy fat guy, and obnoxious broad, respectively. While the Japanese originals are quite quirky themselves, they also have large does of charm and poignancy to them as well, preventing them from being simply caricatures. And while Stanley Tucci is hilarious as Link Peterson, a mild-mannered office worker by day turned steamy Latin dancer by night, in one key scene he comes across as mean instead of misunderstood, and we lose a lot of sympathy for him.
Gere's dancing abilities are pretty decent, but then we already knew that from 2002's Chicago. Unfortunately, this dancing prowess comes out too quickly. Jack, Chic, and Vern move from painfully awkward in the first lesson to high-five-ing high steppers in about ten minutes of movie time. One of the charms of the original movie was seeing the process of the characters learning how to dance and seeing romantic feelings slowly build or shift over time. Often this process is one of the best parts of a story line, and it's largely missing here.
And, of course, any U.S. dance flick is bound to show a fair amount of skin and pelvic thrusting. There are a few club scenes where the ballroom dancers suddenly look like extras from Dirty Dancing. Similarly, though she plays an uptight jilted dancer who's "strictly business" (and desperately in need of her own rousing), J-Lo showcases her much-touted bod in many strappy little numbers. Toward the end of the movie, there's a steamy dance "practice" between John and Paulina that's altogether gratuitous, especially considering she's supposed to be prepping him for a major competition the next day in which he's dancing the waltz; their steamy, bump-and-grindy dance moves seem anything but waltzy.
But, thankfully, most of this is just a tease and the movie eventually packs a refreshingly pro-marriage message. Beverly gives a touching description of marriage to the private investigator she hires to check on John's whereabouts, though you have to wonder why she's sporting so much cleavage to a man she's hired to help her save her marriage. And in the only diversion from the original plot, John gives a lovely little speech to Beverly toward the end of the movie that will make the women in the audience, especially veteran wives, melt a bit.
Perhaps I would have liked this remake better if I hadn't seen the original first. Judged on its own merit, Shall We Dance? is simply a fun romantic comedy. If you like what you see here (perhaps even moreso if you don't), there's good news. The original is classier, deeper, more poignant. A Ginger Rogers to this Beyoncé. Find it. Rent it. You'll love it. Then go out and sign up for those dance classes.Discussion starters
- Do you think John and Paulina's relationship was appropriate? If not, when and how did they cross the line? Does John make everything right with his wife by the end of the movie?
- Beverly says people get married to have a witness to their life. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? If you disagree, why do you think people get married?
- Have you ever found yourself sleepwalking through life, as John did? If so, how did you get out of it? If you're in that stage now, what steps can you take to "wake up"?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
There are a few steamy dance scenes, some low-slung and low-cut outfits, and a relationship that could be described as an emotional affair. In addition, there are a handful of swear words and a very minor homosexual subplot.
Photos © Copyright Miramax Filmscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/21/04
Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance?became a favorite of moviegoers around the world when it opened in 1996. Thus, as they have done with so many acclaimed foreign films, American filmmakers have tried adapting it for U.S. audiences and come up with a version that is vastly inferior.
Richard Gere stars as John Clark, a father and a husband who finds his life has gone stale. He's lacking passion for anything, including his marriage. When he sees a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez) staring sadly out of a dance studio window, he's lured to set foot on the dance floor for the first time. There, he discovers that her name is Paulina, and she's an instructor with a troubled past. Motivated by his weaknesses, he enrolls in the class just to be near her. At home, his wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Tamara Hope) grow suspicious of his long evening absences, while he steps carefully around the floor with his classmates (including Stanley Tucci, Bobby Cannavale, and Omar Miller).
And so the gear wheels of the plot begin to turn, awkwardly and, at times, predictably. Will John give in to his temptation and run off with the sexy instructor? Will he compete in the ballroom dance championships? Will his wife find out about his new obsession? Is his marriage doomed?
While Peter Chelsom's version of the film is strikingly different in tone and pace than the original, it has charms all its own, especially in the chemistry of the ensemble cast. But while it earns some cheers and some laughs, it remains a comedy trifle, one that tries too hard to please us. The cast attempt to merge the subtle flourishes of the original with the flamboyant, exaggerated comedy of Strictly Ballroom, and they frequently lose their balance; the comedy feels forced and falls flat. Still, when the dancers strut their stuff—especially in a much-anticipated, after-hours practice between John and Paulina—the movie musters enough magic to keep us engaged. Gere gives a winning, low-key performance, and Lopez is convincing (although she has yet to match her strong work in Out of Sight). Fortunately, the film can boast of having a strong moral center, one that honors marriage more than any commercial film in recent memory.
Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "simply a fun romantic comedy." But she concludes, "The original is classier, deeper, more poignant. Find it. Rent it. You'll love it." She points out that Chelsom's remake "eventually packs a refreshingly pro-marriage message" in spite of some "gratuitous," revealing costumes and glimpses of "dirty dancing."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the screenwriter "can't translate what is essentially a Japanese identity crisis into American terms. Fans of the original will find the remake pointlessly dumbed down and at times needlessly crass." Still, he concludes that the movie "manages to be fitfully entertaining and ultimately even charming. How often does a Hollywood romantic comedy celebrate romance between a middle-aged couple in a longtime marriage?"
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Although the American remake does not reach the joyous heights of the foreign film, it remains a delightful experience. For those familiar with the original film, it make take a bit longer to be drawn into the remake and stop making comparisons, but eventually the actors and director Peter Chelsom win out and win us over with a breezy, lightweight and happy little movie all their own."
Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "The first two-thirds of Dance have the breezy feel of a successfully polished romantic comedy … but there's an uneasy undercurrent that results from the married John's excessive interest in Paulina. The longer the film runs, the more the problematic this becomes—it's a serious, damaging choice, if made, that doesn't fit with the light tone." Coffin is pleased with the film's unconventionally moral conclusion, but dismayed by the final moments, which are "all over the map. Restraint, many in Hollywood fail to realize, can be a virtue."
Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says the movie "comes out … on the side of marriage." But she's concerned that one of John's fellow students "discovers" that "he's attracted to other men, implying that each end is acceptable and appropriate. It's a very minor plot point, but together with exasperating sexual jokes and spurts of foul language, it adds quite a bit of klutziness to what might have been a beautifully choreographed routine."
But Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) leaves the theatre dancing. "Do not be afraid! Just because it bears the name Jennifer Lopez doesn't mean it's a bad film … but this film isn't about her, anyway. It's about reigniting your life and your marriage by finding your passion. And it's a delightful, inspiring bit of cinema. The dialogue is funny, with some good laughs, and the acting couldn't be better."
Phil Boatwright (CBN) says, "I really wasn't looking forward to [it] … I simply expected the American version to be a misstep. I was pleasantly surprised. Our hero keeps this new interest a secret from his wife, but, well, I don't want to give anything away. Suffice it to say, this is not about adultery, but about a man finding his way and realizing what he has. Not as dimensional as the foreign version, but it is charming, with delightful performances from several supporting actors. What's more, marriage is lifted up."
Mainstream critics almost unanimously recommend that viewers see the original, but some of them are won over by the remake as well.
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