Shall We Dance

John (Richard Gere) is a bored lawyer blessed with a loving wife, Beverly (a marvelous Susan Sarandon), and two kids. On his commuter train route every day, John passes a dance studio where he spies a forlorn dancer name Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) staring out her window. Smitten, John joins a dance class to get close to Paulina, but soon finds the freeing nature of the art form raises his spirits and breathes life into him and his classmates (including a miscast Lisa Ann Walter and Bobby Cannavale). Caught between lying to his wife, having romantic feelings for his teacher, and hiding his passion for dance from his coworkers, John’s simple, mundane life quickly becomes complicated.

There is a great difficulty in remaking the 1997 Japanese hit film, “Shall We Dancer” The original picture reflected Japanese culture in a way that Americans could be sympathetic to, but probably never relate fully. It symbolized a businessperson’s freedom from monotony, his expectations of hard work, and the daily grind of martial complacency and responsibility. It was a film truly of its time and region. The new “Dance” is a lukewarm Hollywood T-ball game, where the only goal is to please every potential audience member out there in the great unknown.

Casting is where the 2004 “Dance” really falters; the supporting talent is a hodgepodge of character actors who are playing far too broadly with their stereotypes (fatty eats, macho guy is really gay, and high maintenance woman is misunderstood) to make a dramatic significance, which the film begs for at the end. There is also a problem with the casting of Richard Gere, who gives his expected “spirited Gere” performance, but is all wrong for the part. Gere and director Peter Chelsom have trouble selling John’s vocational depression, which is simply touched on with some weak narration, but never truly explored, making the eventual euphoric dance release artificial. Gere also can’t get his hands around the matrimonial quicksand the character should be feeling. Beverly is a devoted, beautiful, respectful wife, making John’s inability to vocalize his dance aspirations mean-spirited in retrospect. Of course, Gere is here to smile and fill out a tuxedo in a way that only Richard Gere can, but his performance is lacking in the middle-age gravitas that the character and the film are thirsting for, and the Japanese film conveyed very well.

Shockingly, it’s Jennifer Lopez that almost steals the film away from Gere. “Dance” plays to her strengths, which is body movement and silent authority. Thankfully, Chelsom doesn’t hand over much dialog to the supporting actress (her kryptonite), instead allowing Lopez to lead with her steely dancing focus (her Tango gaze is killer) and her gorgeous costumes. Gere could learn a thing or two from Lopez’s alarming precision in “Dance.”

Filmmaker Peter Chelsom is in full wound-licking mode with “Dance, “ after one of his last films, the notorious $100 million dollar Warren Beatty flop, “Town & Country,” took a dive three years ago. “Dance” is an unabashed audience-pleasing movie, which, if done with some personality, can make for cinema greatness. However, “Dance” has very little in terms of charm. The picture feels as though a committee made it, with each member throwing in an exhausted joke or situation they know crowds have loved before. Originality is not the name of the game with “Dance,” but energy should’ve been, and the picture doesn’t have it. It gets even worse to see Chelsom pander to the teen audience with a bizarre cameo by rapper Ja Rule, and lose all sense of story by including two private detective characters (played by Nick Cannon and Richard Jenkins) to yuk it up poorly, and heatedly throw out a completely unnecessary use of the F-word just to seem less Disney.

Chelsom’s greatest sin is keeping the audience away from serious dancing sequences, which only break out in the film’s final act (in a competition for John and the other students). Far too busy playing Benny Hill with the rest of the dance moments, Chelsom gets somewhat serious when he’s forced to hand the audience John’s ultimate payoff: a terrific sequence between John and Paulina where they practice their passionate moves together in the dark that really brings the picture to life. Chelsom needed more of that, and less of actor Stanley Tucci (as John’s Latino-impersonating, dance professional friend) relentlessly hamming it up with wigs and fake teeth.

Rating: D+
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