A flat-footed stage piece gets a better screen interpreter than it deserves in Gena Rowlands, a delight to watch even in the creaky, listless affair that is “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” Adapted by Richard Alfieri from his own widely produced play, and directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman (who helmed the original 2003 Broadway production), this two-hander about a Florida retiree and her gay dance instructor serves up lessons in tolerance and acceptance that feel as stale and inauthentic as the characters’ ready-made tragic backstories. Still, the popularity of the source material and the rare prospect of seeing Rowlands in a substantial movie role should give the English-language Hungarian production a commercial boost in DVD/VOD play following a brief waltz through theaters.
A ballroom full of dancing extras and a brief reckless-driving scene provide some obligatory “opening up” of this bare-bones two-hander, which consists of little more than the six dance lessons of the title stretched across a rhythmless 106 minutes. When thirtysomething Michael (Cheyenne Jackson) arrives at the Florida apartment of 75-year-old Lily Harrison (Rowlands), the two take an immediate disliking to one another, exacerbated by Michael’s foot-in-mouth disease and inexplicably nasty attitude. It’s a grating combination, and you can’t really blame the “tight-assed old biddy,” as Michael calls her, for almost canceling their lessons and reporting him to his overbearing boss (Julian Sands).
Keeping the movie going seems to be the only plausible explanation for why Lily decides to give Michael a series of second chances, especially when their dynamic is so strained and repetitive: One of them inevitably says something thoughtless, the other gets all huffy, their lesson is interrupted by a nosy neighbor (Rita Moreno), Lily asks Michael to leave and never come back, but they wind up reconciling and/or dancing away the tension. The widow of a conservative Baptist minister, Lily is initially offended (and somehow shocked) when Michael informs her that he’s gay, but soon discovers a kindred spirit in this ex-Broadway chorus boy — like her, a solitary soul who’s had his own experiences with grief and loss.
“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” does boast an impressive degree of production polish, courtesy of the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who seems to have buffed every shot until it sparkles. (There’s a curiously artificial look to the gorgeous ocean views and jaw-dropping sunsets visible from Lily’s window, which may be accounted for by the fact that, with the exception of the Florida-lensed exteriors, the picture was shot entirely in Hungary.) In all other respects, however, Alfieri and Seidelman seem too wedded to their original stage production to approach the material with fresh cinematic eyes; scene by scene, they’ve opted to retain some of the play’s most lamentable one-liners, whether it’s zany Michael yelling, “I’m not crazy, I’m Italian!” or saucy Lily noting that she’s going to dance in her “f—-me dress.”
Somehow, despite the draggy direction — which manages to be at once stagey and sitcom-like, packing too much dead air around the actors’ line readings — Rowlands emerges unscathed; relishing her character’s stubborn, outspoken side, she nonetheless locates an inner core of decency and sincerity. Not faring nearly as well is Jackson, saddled with a character who too frequently crosses the line between impulsive and insufferable; you may well question the wisdom of a film that tries to preach gay tolerance by way of a character who too often resembles the most unfiltered sort of bitchy-queen stereotype. Worst of all is Jacki Weaver’s supporting turn as a dance student who becomes a leering, butt-groping rival for Michael’s affections; if there has been a more egregious waste of a great actress’ talents in the past 12 months, it doesn’t spring readily to mind.
For all these missteps — including the convenient and predictable use of elderly death as a plot device — the leads’ odd-couple chemistry does become steadier and affectionate as their dance lessons continue, and the film manages to close on a quietly touching final note, one that’s all the more effective for unfolding in relative silence. By that point, alas, “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” has come perilously close to feeling as long and protracted as its title.