<b>"Shall We Dance" is a well-groomed, nattily attired, achingly sentimental redo of the 1996 Japanese ballroom dancing romance that was a surprise hit both on home turf and in the U.S. Scrupulously, even slavishly, adhering to everything about the original that made it click, new version misses the built-in Japanese cultural restraints that intensified the poignancy the first time around, and central casting issues are dicey. But it also nicely fleshes out the protagonist's family life, resulting in an unabashedly old-fashioned entertainment loaded with traditional dancing and music that should connect agreeably, and profitably, with older audiences, as well as fans of the dancing Richard Gere of "Chicago." </B>

“Shall We Dance” is a well-groomed, nattily attired, achingly sentimental redo of the 1996 Japanese ballroom dancing romance that was a surprise hit both on home turf and in the U.S. Scrupulously, even slavishly, adhering to everything about the original that made it click, new version misses the built-in Japanese cultural restraints that intensified the poignancy the first time around, and central casting issues are dicey. But it also nicely fleshes out the protagonist’s family life, resulting in an unabashedly old-fashioned entertainment loaded with traditional dancing and music that should connect agreeably, and profitably, with older audiences, as well as fans of the dancing Richard Gere of “Chicago.”

Writer-director Masayuki Suo’s sincere, slow-burning charmer, which Miramax nursed to a brawny $9.5 million Stateside gross in 1997, pirouetted on the amusingly and affectingly awkward attempts of a shy accountant in a conformist society to break out of his emotional straitjacket through dance.

In an American context, without the trappings of tradition and reticence of its original setting, story loses the source of some of its comedy and repressed feeling. And while the smooth dancing of the second half eventually persuades one to set aside objections, suffice it to say Gere is not the first actor who comes to mind to embody a straitlaced man frustrated by a life of walking the straight and narrow.

Something else the film has lost in translation, at least onscreen, is its titular question mark. Filmmakers reportedly decided the title, derived from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s immortal tune from “The King and I,” looked better in non-querying form, while the marketing department differed, deciding to retain the notation for print ads.

As minimally but adroitly recalibrated by scripter Audrey Wells, story offers Gere as John Clark, a Windy City attorney specializing in wills and estates who outwardly has it all — lovely old suburban house, attractive wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) and two teenage kids, only one of whom exhibits even slightly obnoxious traits.

In fact, John is a virtual double for the husband Gere played a couple of years back in “Unfaithful,” only here he’s the one with the wandering eye. On his evening ride home on the El, John keeps noticing a beautiful woman sadly looking out from the second-story window of Miss Mitzi’s Ballroom Dance School. Curiosity getting the better of him, he eventually gathers the nerve to head up the stairs to try to meet the gazing lady.

John summarily finds himself enrolled in the Wednesday evening beginners’ class taught by Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), a sweet old tippler who puts John through his stumbling initial paces along with the hulking Vern (Omar Miller) and slick Chic (Bobby Cannavale), who protests rather too much about his straight credentials.

The object of John’s interests, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), holds herself aloof from the beginners and is rumored to be recovering from a personal and professional rejection by her dance partner after the world competition in Blackpool the year before.

Enlivening the light comedy of the early going are Lisa Ann Walter in what could be called the Jennifer Coolidge part of Bobbie, an overweight and smart-mouthed hoofer looking for the right partner, and Stanley Tucci as Link, a bald and put-upon office colleague of John’s who morphs into a dance-floor freak upon donning a Moe Howard wig and “Disco Inferno” outfits.

Jumping to the conclusion that her frequently late or absent husband is having an affair, the distracted Beverly hires detective Devine (Richard Jenkins) to follow him, which makes for a few lightweight shenanigans but reveals nothing untoward where John’s behavior is concerned. After John and Paulina finally have a chance to dance together and talk, she warns him in no uncertain terms not to entertain any romantic notions about her.

It’s significantly harder here than it was in the Japanese edition to believe John simply can’t bring himself to tell his wife what he’s doing with his time, or that Beverly simply won’t confront him with the question. But such details are swept aside once the tale enters competition mode, with the now improved students preparing for the novice title at an upcoming city contest. This stretch is dominated by lavish dance numbers that prove breezily diverting and never overstay their welcome.

Most significant contribution by screenwriter Wells is an elaboration of Beverly’s reaction to her eventual discovery of John’s secret, and the way the couple maturely use lessons learned to strengthen their own relationship. Concluding scenes, one of which contains a strong echo of Gere’s film-clinching climactic gesture in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” may be hokey, but on the picture’s terms they give the story’s journey a raison d’etre it didn’t have in Japan. Wrap-up overview of the various characters’ fates works a particularly novel variation on the usual informational printouts.

Director Peter Chelsom gives the material everything it needs in terms of pizzazz and heart. It’s shamelessly direct in its emotional targeting, but in a gentle, inoffensive way that will appeal to viewers who prefer the old storytelling formulas to the more sensationalistic contemporary approach.

Even divested of his sometime smug mannerisms, Gere remains too physically out-of-the-ordinary and confident for this Average Joe character, but he comes into his own in the latter going, when John acquires the terpsichorean chops to put on a good show. Similarly arresting in her dance numbers, Lopez is perfectly plausible as a remote object of desire but less so as a woman deeply scarred by romantic misfortune. Sarandon’s deer-in-the-headlights reactions to the narrative’s revelations makes the character a tad too out-to-lunch.

Raft of supporting players, from Tucci and Walter to Miller, Cannavale and Nick Cannon as a junior detective, offers broad comic relief.

Production designer Caroline Hanania and lenser John de Borman make the heavily art-directed dance studio into a warmly lit womb that becomes a safe haven for the secret lives of the students.

Musical elements are vibrant and varied, with Gabriel Yared’s “English Patient”-like romantic theme offset by a host of familiar standards, ethnic dance tunes and covers executed in an assortment of styles.

Shall We Dance

Production

A Miramax release of a Simon Fields production. Produced by Fields. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Julie Goldstein. Co-producer, Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda. Co-executive producers, Jennifer Berman, Amy Israel. Directed by Peter Chelsom. Screenplay, Audrey Wells, based on the Altamira Pictures film "Shall We Dance?" written by Masayuki Suo.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), John de Borman; editors, Charles Ireland, Robert Leighton; music, Gabriel Yared, John Altman; executive music producer, Randy Spendlove; production designer, Caroline Hanania; art directors, Sue Chan, Gary Baugh (Chicago); set designers, Rudy Braun, Rejean Labrie; set decorators, Cal Loucks, Tony Barracca (Chicago); costume designer, Sophie de Rakoff; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Robert F. Scherer; re-recording mixers, Patrick Cyccone, Michael Keller; choreographer, John O'Connell; associate producer, Rachel Hudgins; assistant director, Martin Walters; casting, Richard Hicks, Ross Clydesdale. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, Sept. 23, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

John Clark - Richard Gere Paulina - Jennifer Lopez Beverly Clark - Susan Sarandon Link - Stanley Tucci Bobbie - Lisa Ann Walter Devine - Richard Jenkins Chic - Bobby Cannavale Vern - Omar Miller Miss Mitzi - Anita Gillette Vern's Fiance - Mya Harrison Evan Clark - Stark Sands Jenna Clark - Tamara Hope Hip-Hop Bar Performer - Ja Rule Scott - Nick Cannon
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