Toeing the Cliched Line

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page WE33

NO ONE needs a session at Arthur Murray to keep up with the moves in "Shall We Dance?" Before you've even digested that first kernel of popcorn, you'll know exactly what's about to happen in this occasionally charming but ultimately forgettable bit of fox-trot fluff.

A precious few will recognize the plot points from the 1996 Japanese film of the same name that inspired this Hollywoodized version starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon.

Others will have seen the commercials for this movie, which clearly lay out its beginning, middle and end for those who can't already predict the conventional storyline. Indeed, "Shall We Dance?" follows the formula of virtually every dance picture that came before it -- "Dirty Dancing," "Strictly Ballroom," heck, even "Lambada."

In this version, Gere plays the role of weary, repressed protagonist John Clark, a lawyer and family man whose daily routine has drained him of joie de vivre. That is until one evening, while taking his usual ride home on Chicago's El train, when he spots the beautiful, melancholy face of a mysterious woman (Lopez) gazing out the window of Miss Mitzi's Dance School. Compelled by her image, he musters the courage to enter Miss Mitzi's and sign up for classes in the hope of getting closer to her. To his surprise (but not the audience's), he winds up discovering the thrill of ballroom dancing. His feet become so happy that he continues his lessons and even enters a ballroom dance competition, all the while slowly forming a friendship with Lopez's Paulina. Of course he keeps his twinkle-toed persona under wraps, prompting his wife (Sarandon) to hire a private detective ("Six Feet Under's" Richard Jenkins) to find out whether an extramarital affair is what's keeping her husband away from home.

While Gere brings a sophisticated, salt-and-pepper-haired sexiness to his Mr. Nice Guy role, Lopez doesn't really register. Despite one semi-steamy rehearsal sequence, the two don't set off many sparks. Gere and Sarandon fare much better in the chemistry department, a fact that, perhaps inadvertently, makes the movie's conclusion all the more expected. (No need for a spoiler alert here. I'm not telling you anything the commercials haven't already made blatantly obvious.) The high points of "Dance" actually come from the cast's supporting players. Stanley Tucci brings his usual energy to his part as a balding fellow lawyer and gifted dancer who dons a Fabio-esque wig whenever he hits the floor. And Lisa Ann Walter's performance as Bobbie, a dance student in dire need of a long sit-down with Miss Manners, is infused with just enough vulnerability to make the otherwise obnoxious character seem likable.

Ultimately what's most disappointing about "Shall We Dance?" isn't the cliched dialogue or the fact that it repeats almost every step of the Japanese version. It's the lack of an electrifying, knock-'em-dead, killer dance sequence, a violation of Rule No. 1 in the Dance Movie Handbook. A hot choreographed routine during a dance movie's climactic scene is what makes all those cheesy plot developments almost bearable. Even the kids in "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" knew that. Though there are some lovely waltzes, no scene truly razzle-dazzles. And for a film that stars "Chicago's" Billy Flynn and a former "In Living Color" Fly Girl dancer, that's more than a violation. That's a sin.

SHALL WE DANCE? (PG-13, 106 minutes) -- Contains some sexual references and brief bits of objectionable language. Area theaters.


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