"Shall We Dance?" takes a small, exquisite Japanese movie and turns it into a big, stupid American movie. Still, it must be said that as glossy and overproduced as the thing is, it's a good Big Stupid American movie.
In the original, Koji Yakusho played a successful but browbeaten accountant who each night goes home shoehorned into a bullet train and, passing a ballroom dancing studio with a beautiful girl in the window, becomes entranced. He's married, he's got a career, his life is on the tracks to forever, but . . . just looking at her, he feels a certain yearning, not for sex explicitly, but for the possibilities she represents, even if he's not quite sure what those are.
One night, screwing up his courage, he gets off the train, enters the dance hall and becomes part of a whole new world. He achieves, for the first time in his harried, pressured life, a sort of happiness in the arms of a beautiful woman who knows how to cha-cha. They do a lot of cha-cha, and some rumba, some tango, but no hoo-ha.
The innocence of the entire construction was a part of the charm, as was the halting, shy performance of Yakusho, who made you ache for the loneliness of the salaryman in a conformist, rule- and face-driven culture like Japan's.
Now let me give you two words that indicate totally why this concept will not quite work when Americanized: The two words are "Richard" and "Gere."
Yes, that guy. The silky, seductive Gere, with a luscious foam of gray-tipped hair and no pink pate gleaming through, cheekbones like umbrella knobs, smoldering eyes and a way of moving as if his hip joints were lubricated with 10W-40. The kind of guy who looks good in Armani and Gargoyle shades. The kind of guy who might star in a movie called "American Gigolo."
So Gere is all wrong for the part and he never begins to convince. Worse, his life -- though he seems to evoke its melancholy in an overdone voiceover reminiscent in tone to Bob Seger's classic of self-pity "Turn the Page" -- seems far from desperate. He's a Chicago lawyer who lives at the end of the northbound El tracks. Great house, great little town, great family, great wife (Susan Sarandon, with those big eyes and hyper-intelligent demeanor, as close to perfection as a man has a right to hope for). So you're thinking, from the start, what's this guy so sad about?
The only possible answer: He doesn't have J.Lo.
And that's J.Lo lounging in the window of Miss Mitzi's Dance Studio, her hair drawn back so tightly it must hurt, her soulful demeanor as depressed as a grieving widow. Honey, maybe if you loosen the hair, that headache will go away.
Anyway, like his Japanese antecedent, Gere's John Clark goes in and signs up for lessons in ballroom. Do such places still exist in America? A quick check of Anywho.com reveals that they do, so you can't fault the movie on its detail, even if Miss Mitzi's studio looks like a crew of professional art directors spent $5 million in an attempt to portray a hall that rents for $250 a month. That's one of the many oversize flourishes that characterize the film in goofy, but not really annoying, ways.
Clark, of course, doesn't immediately get one-on-ones with the beauteous, remote Paulina (Jennifer Lopez); instead, he's one of three guys who are taught by the estimable if venerable Mitzi (Anita Gillette) herself, and soon he and new buddies Nick Cannon and Bobby Cannavale are slithering around the floor or standing before mirrors trying to free that right shoulder to perform the contrapuntal undulations so necessary to Latin dance rhythms. Meanwhile, now and then, Paulina can be glimpsed through the glass doors, tripping the light fantastic in backlit silhouette, a beautiful dream.
The movie is best, actually, in its evocation of community. The three guys, wildly separate in origin, class and education, bond (doncha love it when that happens in the movies?), and as much as Miss Mitzi loves them, the amusing hanger-on Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), a busty dancin' fool with a personality as big as all outdoors, loves them even more. Where's the love? Here's the love.
Meanwhile, back in Wilmette or wherever (maybe it's Winnetka; it looked like posh Kenilworth to me), wife Beverly is beginning to notice the sweat on her husband's shirts and his persistent pattern of working late on Wednesday nights. Next thing you know, to add another comic dimension of complication, she's hired a sad-sack shamus (Richard Jenkins) and his hip-hoppy assistant (Omar Miller) to investigate.
As a beginning dancer, Gere doesn't quite work, because he moves so sveltely from the start. It's not like an inner Fred Astaire has been released from a klutz; he was already Fred Astaire. He just didn't have that far to go.
As for J.Lo, it's hard to tell. The movie is so tilted toward mythologizing Lopez's physical presence (particularly a certain part of it, if you know what I mean and I think you do) with the most sophisticated lighting techniques that she seems more like a brilliantly photographed supermodel than an actual physical person. As a dancer, she lacks that charisma of movement the great ones had (yes, I know she was a Fly Girl!), and there's a moment when the dance students pass in front of a store and watch Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse light up the town in 1953's "The Band Wagon" that really shows you how incandescent dance can be on film, and reminds you that the dance in this film is far from incandescent.
But more works than doesn't. Fine comic spins from an old-pro character yeoman like Jenkins, plus freshness from both Cannavale and Cannon, and a hey-look-me-over bust-out from Walter all connect. Then there's a moment when Gere faces the mirror, ostensibly to work on loosening up that Latin shoulder, and his eyes meet his eyes in reflection, and I thought: This guy has done this before! Why, do you think he knows anything about narcissism?
Shall We Dance? (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes.