I’m already getting the sense that it’s going to be fashionable to look down on Peter Chelsom’s Shall We Dance? as inferior to the Japanese film Shall We Dansu?, on which it’s based. Because, of course, Chelsom’s update features J-Lo in its cast.
While I’ve not seen the original, I’ve little doubt that Audrey Wells’ new screenplay significantly Tinsel Towns the proceedings, based on her uber-Hollywooden script for Under the Tuscan Sun. And Wells’ new film is heavily populated with movie types in its supporting roles, though these characters appear to be in the original as well. All of this makes me suspect that Shall We Dansu? is getting one of those free passes mystifyingly handed out to foreign-language films for no other reason than that they’re not in English. The truth is that Shall We Dance? is the sort of movie that calls for “types” and, as entertainment, is none the worse for them.
The idea is simple enough: John Clark (Richard Gere) is an outwardly satisfied, middle-aged Chicago lawyer who specializes in drawing up wills, and who keeps catching a glimpse of a sad-looking woman (Lopez) peering out the window of a dance studio as he rides home on the El. Intrigued by her apparent melancholy, John decides to enroll for ballroom-dance lessons, only to find himself being taught not by the mysterious woman, but by the school’s owner, Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette, Boys on the Side), a genial tippler considerably older than the instructor whom John had hoped for.
John’s classmates are none too inspiring, either. There’s an overweight African-American man (Omar Benson Miller, Sorority Boys), and a cocky, homophobic Italian-American (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent), who’s convinced that John is gay (no prizes for guessing where this is going). Also among the regulars is loud-mouthed, semi-professional hoofer Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter, Bruce Almighty), who delights in “telling it like it is,” and a fiery-tempered, enigmatic dancer (Stanley Tucci, The Terminal), who seems strangely familiar to John.
This final person is probably the film’s best-drawn — yet still far from surprising — supporting character, who turns out to be one of John’s co-workers. The irony is that this bewigged, sequin-loving, ballroom-dance fanatic isn’t gay (“Do you have any idea how much simpler my life would be if I were gay?”), and is the last person on earth you’d expect to find in this milieu. (Of course, in movie logic, that’s precisely why he’s in this setting.)
Matters get complicated when John’s wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), becomes suspicious that he’s having an affair. You’ll notice that the one major character I haven’t referenced is the wistfully distant Paulina, played by Lopez. That’s because she’s more in the background than not (her role isn’t very large, which should please J-Lo haters), and she’s actually more catalyst than character. Her story — which contains enough characters to seem more complex than it is, but not so many that it feels burdened by them — is finally revealed in the course of the film.
As a Hollywood entertainment, Shall We Dance? is just about right. However, it’s the direction of Peter Chelsom that really makes this movie something more. Chelsom has an interesting filmography, with only one outright disaster — a little opus called Town and Country, which no amount of directorial skill could save. Yet he’s also only had one real hit, Serendipity, and even that was hardly in the blockbuster category.
Chelsom doesn’t make “big” movies. His best work to date is probably the quirky comedy-drama Funny Bones (shot in — and making terrific use of — Chelsom’s hometown of Blackpool, England). Shall We Dance? may well come in second. It’s a more assured blend of the director’s British-cinema roots and Hollywood filmmaking than are his other U.S. pictures.
One of Chelsom’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to achieve a true sense of place, and to make it seem that his characters actually inhabit the world he’s created. Whatever real location in which his film happens to be set, Chelsom makes his own. In this regard, Shall We Dance? is no different: His evocation of Chicago is truly the Windy City as he sees it, or perhaps would like to see it — a timeless metropolis where colored lights play off wet pavement. (Oddly, it’s Chelsom’s brief evocation of the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool that rings slightly false in this film.)
The huge, lighted sign on the building that houses the dance studio may look for all the world like a variant on Baz Luhrmann’s L’amour fou sign in Moulin Rouge!. In fact, it may even have been inspired by that (surely Chelsom is not unaware that his film has connections to Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom). And, yes, this iconography is too fanciful for reality, but it works cast within the sheer romanticism of the filmmaker’s approach.
Thank goodness for this success, because there are aspects of the script that simply fail. The most troublesome of these is the lack of any sound reason why Beverly is so angry at John after watching him participate in a dance contest. Fortunately, Chelsom and his cast are able to make you not much care about this kind of probability in the world of the film.
As long as Shall We Dance? doesn’t get snubbed for being in English or for having J-Lo in it, it should be another modest hit for Chelsom, which suits me fine. Any director who’s employed Raymond Scott’s “The Penguin” (in Funny Bones) and a recording of the 1930 dance-band tune “Happy Feet” (in Shall We Dance?) is just quirky enough to want to keep around. Plus, Chelsom’s one of the rare few these days who can truly create a world on film.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke