Cinema Signal:

Ballroom Dancing
The book

. "Shall We Dance?"

[Spoiler Warning]

What this imitative vehicle for American star power forces one to consider is the Japanese film that inspired it, Masayuki Suo's "Shall We Dansu?." It also raises the question... should every film that inspires you be remade, American style?

Though it sticks closely to the formula of the original, this version doesn't manage to connect nearly as well with the slow revelation of character, the exotic sophistication of an unknown cast and culture, or the spirit of emergence from melancholy that left an indelible mark in 1996.

Somehow, you don't feel the same about Richard Gere as you do about Koji Yakusyo, though they both go through a similar mid-life discovery of passion; nor about Jennifer Lopez compared to Tamiyo Kusakari as the sad dancer who evokes his transformation. Perhaps the difference is that these people appear to us with a prior image and/or established expectations.

The cause of John Clark's (Gere) sense of dislocation is an apparent loss of purpose. No longer fulfilled by his work as an estate lawyer, he comes home to his family every night with everyone pursuing their separate interests. Even wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) can't arrange her busy schedule for a night out with hubby. So, poor John plods his way home on the train in the familiar, resigned pattern.

Until he looks up from his train window one night and spots a dance studio on an upper floor of an old building. The sign offering lessons is big and noticeable, but what really captures his attention is the beautiful woman standing in a window, peering out longingly.

After building up the courage, Clark finally gets off the train at a new station, and steps into the unknown world of ballroom dancing. Closer contact with the woman in the window Paulina (Lopez) fires up the level of fascination, which develops in mutual ways. But, hands off, this story says. This one's about discovering a passion on the dance floor, not about infidelity.

And, therein lies the problem. There's virtually no way audience expectation can be satisfied in this formulation, which presents a mighty attraction but insists on preserving the purity of dance with no contamination by any gratification of desire. It's all right to suggest sexual magnetism, but not to indulge in it. The Japanese version left one with a feeling of gentle withdrawal, a sadness over a happy ending, a happy ending with parts unresolved. This one does no better and perhaps a bit worse for its level of artificiality.

Gere's silvery good looks also works against the premise, but doesn't destroy it. His ability to dance must have played some part in getting him the role (as though marquee value was a minor consideration). His willingness to step into it reminds me of Paul Newman for whom no film about racing was beneath him ("Winning"). Actors have their passions.

And, if you need to match Gere's boxoffice power with an exotic female of comparable potency, you could logically go for Ms. Lopez. She does haughty untouchability well. If only she could act.

But her difficulties with dialogue is not the problem with the film. Sarandon can certainly act, but that doesn't make her more interesting nor energize her function in the story nor its attempt at resolution.

The film is full of nice touches of humor and the excitement of good choreography. Adding pluses to the side of antic humor are Bobby Cannavale and Nick Cannon as likeable fellow dance students and Stanley Tucci providing the flamboyant notes and toupee artistry of outrageousness.

Films about dance are so often memorable ("Strictly Ballroom") and inspiring; they are nearly always gems of story structure and good character. Even this one provides a level of entertainment. But despite its star wattage, or perhaps because of it, it doesn't win the contest.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez
Dancing the lesson away

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