“Shall We Dance?,” a remake of the 1996 Japanese semi-romantic comedy of the same name, goes through the steps of its predecessor, but is missing the tense grace that made the original unique.
The story is simple. John Clark (Richard Gere) is a lawyer in Chicago with a busy but loving wife (Susan Sarandon) and two kids, yet he is unsatisfied. After glimpsing a beautiful woman gazing out the window of a ballroom dance studio from his commuter train, John signs up for lessons hoping to get to know her. Although he gets better and better at dance, the icy, heartbroken Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) turns out to be a tough bird to catch.
At least, that is the American version. The original version, however, is set in Tokyo, where repressed workaholics are more common than alcoholics, and individuality is something to be shunned. There, males dancing is a forbidden taboo, possibly worse than having an affair. By moving the story to the liberal setting of Chicago — which necessarily cuts out the tense secrecy and complex feelings of shame — the plot flounders, unable to support interest for long.
To make up for the lack of social intrigue, Chelsom fills “Shall We Dance?” with homages to classic Hollywood romanticism. Although such references do help pass the time, they also inadvertently point out the shortcomings of the film. When not shamelessly invoking “Moon River” (the theme song of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) to liven up the chemistry between Gere and Lopez, “Shall We Dance?” serves up tepid buffoonery.
Far from fitting with the overall tone, the film’s stereotypical jokes undermine the careful performances, dropping them into ineffective farce. Paulina holds our attention with a face like a mask, full of self-loathing and beauty, until she suddenly and inexplicably loses her hard edge, while Gere almost becomes a parody of himself, relying on his insecure boyish smile to act him through anything.
Chelsom never tries to convey the unique customs and intricacies of the dance world, instead vaguely alluding to problems between dance partners. In addition, the dance personalities feel stuffed up, nothing but padding and exaggeration. For instance, when Madame Mitzi, the head of the dance studio, takes a drink from a hidden flask, the respectful treatment called for by the script is nowhere to be found. Even the often hilarious Stanley Tucci falls victim to this shoddiness, playing a character that isn’t slimy enough to be believable.
Thankfully, this “Dance” isn’t entirely klutzy. Before the jokes set in, the film starts out promisingly, with well-paced realism that holds interest despite being the stuff of everyday life. Sarandon and Gere have the loose give-and-take of a happily married couple down pat, while at the same time showing a genuine affection for each other that is rarely seen in movies. However, their screen time together is woefully short, and apart they are not the force that they are together.
But the most surprising scene of the film belongs to Lopez. She delivers a smouldering monologue that shows a remarkable talent as an actress, one that has lain dormant for too long.
The dance sequences are the film’s other highlight. They’re edited together with a magnetism that recalls “Strictly Ballroom.” Engulfed by the liquid treble of violins and dazzling choreography, it is hard not to get caught up in the grandeur of it all and simply have fun.
The major problem of “Shall We Dance?” has much more to do with directing than acting. Chelsom makes all the wrong moves in regard to humor and even common sense, and it shows; the movie often crosses the line into the ridiculous.
In addition, the original film is just too good to one-up. Even the fine performances don’t hold a candle to those of their Japanese predecessors, which managed to convey the ghost of emotions and never fell into farce. In the end, “Shall We Dance?” is just another American clunker.