Bland as its title, “Love N’ Dancing” extends the cliches of the dance-and-romance genre — so overplayed that it’s targeted for a Wayans brothers spoof later this month — to the world of West Coast Swing. Writer-producer-star Tom Malloy plays a motivational speaker (and hard-of-hearing hoofer) who rekindles schoolteacher Amy Smart’s girlhood passion for dance, while she offers the inspiration he needs to overcome his disability. Malloy’s chemistry-killing additions to the proven formula push the experience toward mawkishness when the otherwise by-the-numbers pic means to be inspirational, limiting interest in this low-budget indie to the apologetically sincere or ironically inclined.
Bringing no personal style to the assignment, Robert Iscove’s ambivalent direction suggests the “Jesus Christ Superstar” choreographer took this gig for hire, barely disguising the odd vanity-project nature of Malloy’s script. Rather than cast himself as the smoldering Patrick Swayze type, Malloy plays a sensitive soul hung up on his handicap. Though the actor may be up to the role’s swing-dancing demands, he’s no match for its dramatic hurdles.
Script saddles both parties with rival partners. In the opening scene, Jake Mitchell (Malloy) exchanges sharp words with fiancee Corinne Kennedy (swing pro Nicola Royston) before their big show, with Jake indicating the wedding is off before tuning her out with one click of his hearing aid.
Skip to the present, and the duo’s still dancing together, only now on elementary school stages, where Jake makes a powerful impression on Jessica Donovan (Smart). She’s engaged to a preoccupied salesman (Billy Zane) who proves too busy to attend even one dance lesson; Jessica forges on alone, triggering one of those extended montages in which dance seems to enliven her every waking moment (down to the caught-practicing-in-the-bathroom bit ripped directly from “Shall We Dance”).
It all builds to a competition that, in the tradition of “Strictly Ballroom,” finds the young protege bringing out previously untapped qualities in the old pro. Iscove includes no shortage of dancing (were it not for the long swing showcases, the pic might not have even reached feature length), but West Coast Swing is one of those styles that appears more fun to perform than it is to watch.
Typically, such a film would compensate for any lack of energy via infectious songs, but “Dirty Dancing” this ain’t. The mostly original tunes, supplied by music supervisor Bruce Robb, feel like safe, adult contemporary riffs on what the young’uns are listening to these days. Only “Just Like This,” written by Iscove’s son David, feels like top-40 material.
To ensure its dazzling finale, the production cast prizewinning dancers in many of its parts, which explains the uneven nature of the perfs. Zane’s over-the-top tics suggest a penchant for improv, whereas Royston vamps in the vein of a regional-theater diva. Smart’s dance training pays off, but Malloy’s Steve Buscemi-like sneer undermines his potentially charming persona. Attempts at comedy fizzle across the board, with most of the throwaway humor coming at the expense of homosexual characters (a running joke pits Leila Arcieri and Rachel Dratch as feuding lesbians).
Most impressive performance is by Albuquerque, N.M., with the low-density city doubling nicely as Philadelphia. Decent tech credits betray Iscove’s variety-show background.