Shall We Dance? (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Shall We Dance? is a remake of the 1997 Japanese feature by the same name. Penned and directed by Masayuki Suo, that film was an unexpected pleasure - a feel-good feature that wasn't weighed down by the unnecessarily cloying melodrama and manipulation that often accompanies such endeavors. The movie was so beloved amongst art-house goers that Miramax, who snapped up the North American rights, commissioned a re-make. And, to further enhance anticipation of the new version, they declined to make the Japanese original available on home video. Now, some seven years later, we finally get to see how screenwriter Audrey Welles (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) and director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) see this story unspooling. To say that it's not worth the wait is an understatement.

It would be unfair to say that Shall We Dance? is a bad or inept motion picture. But the two movies, despite having similar storylines, do not produce the same reactions. The 2004 edition of the tale is nicely filmed and features a surprisingly nuanced performance from Richard Gere, who seems to be losing his woodenness as he gains more gray hair. But Jennifer Lopez is little more than a lifeless mannequin, and the entire feature feels poorly motivated and low on energy. There's clearly something missing. A few lines, copied from my review of the original, supply the absent piece of the puzzle: "One of the most interesting aspects of the [1997 version] for a Western viewer is that we're offered an opportunity to peer through an open window into Japanese society, especially as it addresses issues of intimacy. For those of us who are used to the idea that dancing is an integral part of the cultural fabric, understanding how the Japanese view this activity can cause a shift in perspective." Take away the Japanese setting, and this element is surgically removed from the story. All that's left in its wake is a quasi-romance about a man struggling through a mid-life crisis. Not exactly groundbreaking material.

Gere plays John Clark, a workaholic lawyer who seems to be living the American dream. He has a nice home, two great kids, and a wonderful, loving wife named Beverly (Susan Sarandon). So why isn't he happy? One day, while traveling home on the El, he spies the lonely, lovely Paulina (Lopez) staring out the window of a dance studio. Intrigued, he decides to sign up for lessons. Soon, he is learning all the right moves from the studio's owner, Miss Mitzy (Anita Gillette), but his eyes always stray to Paulina, who is giving private lessons in an adjoining room. As his lessons progress, he learns to his surprise that the dancing gives him release and happiness, and he agrees to partner with the abrasive Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter) in an upcoming competition. Meanwhile, Beverly is convinced that her husband is having an affair, and hires a private investigator to uncover the truth.

I'm willing to give Welles and Chelsom credit for not overly Americanizing the storyline. In staying true to the original, Shall We Dance? avoids a romance between John and Paulina. The real love story is John and Beverly's. Unfortunately, for this film to work, there needs to be more energy between the top-billed pair. In fact, Paulina has to be more than an attractive figurehead. Despite fitful attempts (via perfunctory flashbacks) to flesh-out Paulina's character, she never attains the status necessary to give her interaction with John meaning. It has been a difficult year-plus for Lopez, and this represents the latest misstep/misjudgment. It's hard to believe that the stiff and mechanical actress here is the same one who radiated so much heat and passion in Out of Sight.

Dancing is supposed to be a passionate and sensual endeavor. The best screen movies capture the unspoken essence of the interaction between partners. Films like Strictly Ballroom and Tango crackle with electricity. The dance scenes come alive. Such is not the case in Shall We Dance? Here, there's a stateless to the numbers. They are, in a word, boring. Even the antics of Stanley Tucci, playing a manic Latin dancer, can't liven things up. In choreographing the dance sequences, Chelsom shows too much restraint and good taste. As a result, the ending, although it makes perfect sense and offers closure, seems muted and oddly unsatisfying. I walked out of the original Shall We Dance? with a silly grin on my face. I left this one shaking my head, wondering where it had all gone wrong. The answer lies in the title of another film about the cultural schism between East and West: Lost in Translation.

Shall We Dance? (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2004-10-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1