Shall We Dance? (review)

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Two Left Feet

We Americans should probably be insulted, as a people, by movies like this travesty of a remake, Shall We Dance? See, the 1996 Japanese film of the same name, upon which this is very closely based, is a charming, lovely film, fleet and sure-footed, subtle and elegant. It was a box-office phenomenon in its native land and one of the biggest arthouse hits ever in the United States. But now, comes time to sell a version of the story to mainstream American audiences, what does it look like? Instead of class, we get crass. Instead of living characters, we get lazy stereotypes. Instead of light effervescence, we get a lead balloon. We should be embarrassed to be seen as a culture that requires crudity and glaring obviousness in our entertainment.
But maybe the joke is supposed to be on us. If our new national sport is public humiliation — as evidenced by everything from the popularity of “reality” television shows that are little more than elaborate hoaxes perpetrated against their contestants to the guarantee of huge box office for any movie that debases its characters — then perhaps it’s merely our turn, all 300 million of us, to be the butt of the joke.

Though script credit is given to Audrey Wells (who knows a thing or two about unsubtlety: she wrote the horrendous schmaltzfest Disney’s The Kid a few years back), she didn’t do much but translate the dialogue from the Japanese: Though the names have changed and the action shifted to Chicago, the story is practically identical. It’s mostly in how director Peter Chelsom (Town and Country) brings it all to the screen, in the Americanized attitude with which that story is presented, that brings it all down to the level of an elementary school playground. There’s an unpleasant glee in the unhappiness of the film’s characters, in the invitation to laugh at them rather than to sympathize with them, that stamps it as a product of the miserable, mean-spirited environment we’re living in today. If you loved the original film, with its spontaneous, generous spirit, you’ll do well to avoid this one.

The melancholy accountant who can’t quite put his finger on why he’s unhappy and finds a secret passion in dance? Now he’s John Clark, lawyer, but the big difference is that here, as played by Richard Gere (Chicago, Unfaithful), he’s as wooden as the floor of the dance studio he spies from the train on his way home every night. The wistful dancer who entranced him as she gazed over the city from the window of the studio? Now she’s Paulina, and as played by Jennifer Lopez (Jersey Girl, Gigli), she’s a robot. John and Paulina don’t have as much screen time together as you might expect from the high-profile casting, but when they do come together in their few scenes, it’s with a kind of negative chemistry. They’re really quite awful on their own — he is unable to embody a man who represses emotion and so opts for his usual vapid hollowness, and she is unable to convey inner turmoil and so does nothing — but in each other’s presence they’re even colder and more passionless. If all they had to do was dance together, it might have worked. But they attempt conversation, and that is their downfall.

Worse, though, is how all the peripheral characters, so real and warm in the Japanese film, are turned cartoonish here. The older lady who runs the dance studio (Anita Gillette: The Guru, Bob Roberts) can’t be just a nice older lady: she has to be a secret drinker… played for laughs, of course. The chunky, aggressive dancer (Lisa Ann Walter: Bruce Almighty) can’t just be a gal confident in herself and hooked on dancing: she has to be loud, obnoxious, and subject to teasing about her body. The tries-too-hard-with-the-ladies dancer (Stanley Tucci: The Core, Maid in Manhattan) must be extra vulgar and receive a public dressing down for his boorishness. Innuendo about what a predilection for dancing suggests about a man’s sexual preference must be endured… and confirmed in the most clichéd way possible. Only Susan Sarandon (Moonlight Mile, The Banger Sisters), as John’s wife, is allowed to maintain a modicum of dignity, and she isn’t in the film anywhere near enough to make up for the rest of it.

It could have been worse. A gratuitous car chase could have been thrown in, or a gun battle could have broken out during the big finale at the dance competition. But it’s bad enough. Do we really need to see gay-bashing, fat-bashing, and general mortification in order to be entertained? Fine. Here it is. Are we not entertained?

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