A feature expansion from writer-director Randall Miller’s half-hour 1990 short of the same title, by-numbers ensemble seriocomedy “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” juggles three separate time periods — and is completely formulaic in each one. Its first Sundance audience, skewing older than most, was duly charmed and noisily appreciative. However, this shamelessly contrived crowdpleaser needs strong critical support to succeed theatrically, since many in its marquee cast are relegated to cameos. Those most likely to embrace its safe-as-milk smiles ‘n’ tears will mostly do so at eventual small-screen destinations.
Bakery owner Frank (Robert Carlyle) sees a car wreck while driving down a highway, and discovers barely alive driver Steve (John Goodman). Frank is told to keep the victim talking until the ambulance arrives — then to have him continue to talk en route to the hospital — so Frank pretty much gets the best parts of the bulky stranger’s life story.
Seems a childhood love that’s haunted him for 40 years had Steve on his way to see the lady in question, keeping a promise they’d made as 8-year-olds.
Flashbacks consist pretty much of the entire original short, a cloying and predictable exercise in girls-are-yukky humor graduating into first-kiss precociousness.
The awakening of young Steve (Elden Henson, who also plays a minor grown-up role in present-day sequences) takes place at the titular charm school, where he and his buddies reluctantly learn to act like little gentlemen. Handling of child thesps is uninspired, while adults offer blunt caricatures in this obvious calling-card effort, which looks a bit rough in what appears to be 16mm-to-35mm transfer.
Begged by the dying man (in scenes given a heavy bluish tint) to keep his appointment for him, Frank — himself still grieving a wife lost to an unexplained suicide — shows up at the Hotchkiss School, now operated by the late founder’s daughter Marianne (Mary Steenburgen). He has no luck finding Steve’s mystery date “Linda,” but gets roped nonetheless into an awkward ballroom dance lesson. Facing a predominantly female crowd, he’s welcomed by all, save preening alpha male Randall (Donnie Wahlberg), whose uncharming characteristics include bullying his shy stepsister Meredith (Marisa Tomei).
Unexpectedly exhilarated after this workout, Frank demonstrates his new moves for skeptical fellow widowers at his grief support group. Most of them eventually join the class, evening out the male-female ratio and giving everyone a new lease on life.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with pic’s desire to jerk a few tears and mine some laughs while offering pointers in moving past grief. But the comedy is crude, the sentimentality canned, and nearly every plot development obvious. Wisdom includes such Hallmark 101 moments as “Did you ever look at your life and think how it might have been different? You only get one!”
There’s scarcely a moment that doesn’t feel artificially processed from the pulped materials of superior films like “The Full Monty,” “Shall We Dance” and so on. At least the last reel springs one welcome reconciliation, an OK flashback twist, and neat dance fadeout.
Miller, whose original short led to a directorial career (this is his first screenplay since), including Disney telepic “H-E Double Hockey Sticks” and mediocre bigscreen vehicles for Sinbad and Kid ‘n’ Play, does not encourage much subtlety from a cast full of wasted talent.
Steenburgen fares best as the glacially mannered dance mistress, whose physical graciousness she stylizes to an amusing extreme. Otherwise, Carlyle relies on his shaggy mane and puppy eyes to convey mourning; Goodman milks dry the longest death scene this side of grand opera; Tomei undergoes rote transformation from wallflower to bombshell.
It’s bleak to see Sonia Braga as a stereotyped aging Latina vamp among so many one-dimensional class attendees, also including Sean Astin, David Paymer and Ernie Hudson. Camryn Manheim and Danny DeVito turn up for one scene each late in the game.
Best element in pro package is Jonathan Sela’s handsome widescreen lensing. Mark Adler’s score pours swelling-anthemic syrup on a movie whose uplift is already Pavlovian enough.