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Friday, October 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Brangien Davis
John Clark (Richard Gere) is a nice lawyer with a nice family and a nice head of hair, but as with so many midlife men, he feels that something is missing. One evening, during his commute home on the El, he notices the neon lights of Miss Mitzi's dance studio and decides the hottie staring out the window might be just the cure for his soul-sucking ennui.
Once inside, he meets Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), the girl with the mournful gaze. A former professional ballroom dancer, Paulina is grieving over a disgraceful fall at the Blackpool competition and has opted for a little self-flagellation in the form of teaching Ballroom 101.
Clark signs up for a beginner class and in so doing joins a merry band of misfits (with Bobby Cannavale and Omar Benson Miller), all of whom have various manly excuses for taking the class, and all of whom eventually cop to a deep love of dance. We witness the men progress from dreadful to OK to pretty darn good, never once surprised by a slapstick tumble or a plot development.
Lopez doesn't have much to do here, other than dance well and look hot (but in a sad way). Neither does Susan Sarandon as Clark's wife, Beverly, who hires a detective to figure out why her husband has recently gained a skip in his step. (Clark later explains he's kept his dance classes secret because he doesn't want Beverly to think he's unhappy apparently we're supposed to forget that his original motivation was hope of a horizontal tango with Paulina.)
Some of the few genuine moments in the film, however, are provided by the convincing marital manner Gere and Sarandon adopt with each other. Clearly these two have done some acting before. Also a relief is Richard Jenkins, as the detective, whose nonchalant jadedness offers a respite from the film's fresh-scrubbed earnestness.
Otherwise a remarkably close adaptation of Masayuki Suo's Japanese original (1996), the Hollywood version insists on a complete transformation for every character. Midlife malaise, alcoholism, unpopularity, obesity, devastating career blows and plain old cynicism all drift away, thanks to the liberating beat of the quick-step. Happy endings all around!
While the movie's central message seems to be "let yourself go once in a while," it can't seem to follow its own advice. Most of the time, "Shall We Dance?" makes one long for the free-wheeling humor and over-the-top kitsch of Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom." (Stanley Tucci grasps at the campy spirit with his wig-wearing, spaz-dancing character, but among all the seriousness, his efforts just look weird.)
This mildly entertaining bauble will disappear from your memory even before you've dislodged the last popcorn husks from your back teeth.
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