A warmhearted semi-romance of self-discovery, "Shall We Dance" opens so promisingly that it's a big disappointment when the picture suffers crucial missteps that throw off its entire rhythm.
Richard Gere stars as a melancholy Chicago probate lawyer whose prosaic life (established in an uncommonly affecting voice-over and a perfectly pitched montage of daily routine) gets a secret, seductive pick-me-up when he discovers a passion for ballroom dancing. Riding home on the elevated train day after day, he becomes drawn to a possible kindred spirit, a beautiful stranger (Jennifer Lopez) who seems to be forever staring sadly out a dance-studio window. One day his intuition gets the better of him. He signs up for a dance class to be near her.
As Gere's ennui is only tenuously related to his marriage (to Susan Sarandon), the film does not go the obvious direction with this attraction. But director Peter Chelsom ("Serendipity") and screenwriter Audrey Wells ("Under the Tuscan Sun") find other ways to turn this remake of a mediocre 1997 Japanese film about cultural repression into a wholly Hollywood affair.
Gere lends charm and subtle insightfulness to his role as a modest man too self-possessed to follow temptation into a full-on midlife crisis, and his psychological journey rings with a genuinely poignant harmony that serves as the movie's beat. The film is rich with endearing touches of character detail, be they from Gere (at home he opens the door on his daughter's slumber party just to get a little amusement out of the girls' screams) or from the supporting cast of colorful, well-drawn eccentrics (Lisa Ann Walter is an winningly loud-mouthed dance instructor, Stanley Tucci is fellow lawyer shamed by his secret life as a "straight man who dances around in sequins").
But sometimes the movie seems to have two left feet.
Lopez overplays the defensive, broken-hearted blues of her trust-weary professional dancer who has become an instructor after being dumped by a lover and dance partner. In the process, she loses the magnetism necessary to justify Gere's profound interest in her -- especially since his admiration remains mostly undeclared and from a distance.
Despite starring two talented dancers, the ballroom and studio scenes are a problem as well. Impatiently edited, they suffer death by a thousand cuts, never letting the graceful routines -- developed by the dancers and students in preparation for a climactic ballroom-dance competition -- speak for themselves. Instead Chelsom relies on exposition from observers to tell us that the tangos, foxtrots, waltzes and rumbas are "well done!" and "spectacular!"
Before long, other weak and improbable contrivances take over the story, leading to a finale that is the personification of feel-good over-scripted overkill. One character is even cured of alcoholism by the magic of dancing.
Had "Shall We Dance" delivered on the promise of its well-crafted early scenes, had it not been saddled with Jennifer Lopez, and had it stuck to its understated idiosyncrasies (Sarandon finds ironic bits of humor in the wife's increasing paranoia about her husband's late nights), the film could have won both hearts and minds. But instead it aims for far too many broad laughs amidst its resonant (if repressed) emotion, and the finished product becomes just chick flick fluff with a grown-up bent.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th October 2004
Box Office USA: $57.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $170.1M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 46%
Fresh: 70 Rotten: 82
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Peter Chelsom
Starring: Richard Gere as John Clark, Jennifer Lopez as Paulina, Susan Sarandon as Beverly Clark, Lisa Ann Walter as Bobbie, Stanley Tucci as Link, Anita Gillette as Miss Mitzi, Bobby Cannavale as Chic, Omar Benson Miller as Vern, Tamara Hope as Jenna Clark, Stark Sands as Evan Clark, Richard Jenkins as Devine, Nick Cannon as Scott, Sarah Lafleur as Carolyn, Onalee Ames as Diane, Diana Salvatore as Tina, Daphne Korol as Daphne, David Sparrow as Louis
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