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Review: Leave 'Shall We Dance?' alone

Gere-Lopez film falters on many levels

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com


Gere, Lopez
Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez get close in "Shall We Dance?"
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "Shall We Dance?", an American remake of the sweet 1996 Japanese film of the same name, is an ill-fated attempt to translate a wonderful foreign-language film for American audiences -- and it falls apart on its own, too.

This film is not only out of step, it has two left feet.

Both films are about the healing powers of self-expression. But the original also had strong cultural touchstones regarding dance. Public displays of affection, and the close proximity of bodies required for ballroom dancing -- even between a husband and wife -- are considered shameful in traditional Japanese culture. The dance students in the original film defied their tightly bound society with a powerful act of nonconformity.

That is not the case in the 2004 American remake -- and the lack of subtext drains the film of the heartfelt power of the original.

The new "Shall We Dance?" stars Richard Gere as Chicago lawyer John Clark and Jennifer Lopez as Paulina, a dance instructor.

Clark's life looks picture-perfect. He loves his wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) and their two children. In fact, he's living the American dream in a beautiful home and should feel content and happy. But he's not.

Every night while taking the train home from work, he passes a mournfully run-down dance studio called Miss Mitzi's. Standing in the window is Paulina, a forlorn but beautiful woman who turns out to be one of the studio's instructors. She's been damaged by an event in her past.

Not true to life

Clark begins to feel a deep inner connection to Paulina. One night gets off the train to sign up for a beginner's series of ballroom dance lessons.

Gradually he begins to bond with a group of equally unhappy people, played by Stanley Tucci, Bobby Cannavale, Omar Miller and Leslie Ann Walter. (The dance studio's owner is played by Anita Gillette.)

As John begins to feel lighter and lighter on his feet, his spirits also begin to lighten and he starts to find some new meaning in his life. He also finds it increasingly impossible to share his secret with his wife.

Now, we're supposed to feel that Gere's character is afraid his wife will somehow assume his need to dance is a sign of being unfulfilled in their marriage, rather than going against a social norm. And there's also that annoying little emotional involvement with Paulina, which is somehow not supposed to be sexual.

But neither situation feels completely true to life.

Clark's wife, of course, does become suspicious about his behavior and discovers his secret by hiring a private detective. The film's resulting confrontation and anti-climax at Chicago's biggest ballroom dance competition -- where John's secret if finally exposed -- feels embarrassing rather than heartfelt.

Fails in comparison

Sarandon, Gere
Susan Sarandon plays Gere's suspicious wife in "Shall We Dance?"

Well, perhaps it's unfair to compare the American "Shall We Dance?" with its Japanese counterpart, just as it's often unfair to compare a movie with the book it's based on.

But the film asks for this comparison. For one thing, it would have us believe that its cast of cross-cultural misfits is somehow making the same type of rebellious social statement as the dancers in the Japanese film.

But that idea falls flat on the dance floor. While fox-trotting your way to inner peace may be an unusual method for many of us, thousands of Americans -- unlike the Japanese -- have for years found a sense of fulfillment by having an occasional date with Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire.

And then there's the bonding -- shrouded in secrecy -- of the people taking dance lessons. The characters lack the individual depth and -- for that matter -- the deep social bonds of the original film; they're just misfits. Their relationship is missing the glue needed to make the audience feel their need for deception, and therefore their sense of shame of being outside the norm.

The performances don't quite work, partly due to the script by Audrey Wells ("Under the Tuscan Sun"). Sarandon is great as always, but wasn't given much of a character. Lopez looks terrific and her dancing's wonderful, but her character is an awkward fit; she appears miscast in the role. And Gere wears his million-dollar grin and a little of his "Chicago" charisma, but that doesn't quite fit the role, either.

Director Peter Chelsom ("The Mighty") and screenwriter Wells do ponder other themes, but they go nowhere, buried under the attempt to transfer the story from one culture to another. It's like placing Cinderella's glass slipper on the foot of one of her stepsisters.

"Shall We Dance?" doesn't work as a remake, and it doesn't work on its own. Its missteps turn the delicate footwork of the original into a clunky thud.

"Shall We Dance?" opens Friday, October 15, and is rated PG-13.


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