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Dustin Putman

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Shall We Dance (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Peter Chelsom
Cast: Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Bobby Cannavale, Omar Miller, Lisa Ann Walter, Anita Gillette, Richard Jenkins, Nick Cannon, Tamara Hope, Stark Sands, Mya, Ja Rule
2004 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for some sexual references and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 30, 2004.

Based on the 1996 Japanese film of the same name, "Shall We Dance" is a Hollywoodized, but not necessarily dumbed-down, remake with a sparkling cast and enough high-energy dance sequences to pull one through its more saccharine moments. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (2003's "Under the Tuscan Sun") is adept at juggling a large ensemble and capturing the nicely observed details in their interactions with each other, while director Peter Chelsom (2001's "Serendipity") keeps things fluid and peppy when the characters' feet are moving, which is often. It is the sheer likability of almost everything onscreen that keeps the viewer entertained, as the story and some of its more overt emotional junctures are admittedly pretty standard stuff.

John Clark (Richard Gere) seemingly has it all, including a loving wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), two well-adjusted teenage children (Tamara Hope, Stark Sands), and a comfortable job as a writer of wills. Nevertheless, he can't help but feel like something is missing in his life. On his way home from work one day on the New York train, he spots the beautiful, sad-looking Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) in the window of a dance studio and can't get her out of his mind. On an impulse, John signs up for ballroom dancing lessons alongside fellow beginners Chic (Bobby Cannavale) and Vern (Omar Miller). What at first is simply an attempt to get to know Paulina turns into something more as John grows to fall in love with dance itself. Meanwhile, Beverly suspects John may be having an affair when he starts coming home from "work" late, and decides to hire a special investigator (Richard Jenkins) to spy on him.

"Shall We Dance" is a sugary sweet dramedy, the type made precisely for mainstream audiences out for a romantic time at the movies and maybe even a good cry. There are times, especially in the third act, that threaten the limits of tolerable mawkishness, but by then the picture has gotten into the viewer's accepting graces enough to overcome those rough patches. And, fortunately for more demanding viewers who can spot audience manipulation a mile away, the dynamic pacing, plentiful dancing numbers, and charismatic actors ensure that even they will find themselves pleasantly diverted.

Richard Gere (2002's "Chicago") and Susan Sarandon (2002's "Moonlight Mile") are attractively cast as husband and wife John and Beverly, their relationship with each other a tender, but familiar, one that simply needs to be reinvigorated. Sarandon is arguably too accomplished to be playing second fiddle as the steadfast love interest, and more scenes at the onset of the film might have helped to more solidly define their closeness with each other, but a few touching moments near the end does elicit some gravitas. As serious dance instructor Paulina, Jennifer Lopez (2003's "Gigli") falls victim to the camera's adulation too often, with most of her shots framed and musically underscored as if they were the most important the cinematic world has ever seen. In actuality, Lopez's Paulina is more of a catalyst to John's rediscovery of his love for Beverly than a truly central character.

The supporting players threaten to steal the picture from the leads, each one vividly and enchantingly performed. Coming off of his fine work in 2003's "The Station Agent," Bobby Cannavale supports the promise made in that earlier film with star-making screen presence as suave playboy Chic. He shares an easy, engaging rapport with Omar Miller (2002's "8 Mile"), whose overweight nice guy Vern has come to take dance lessons in an attempt to impress his fiancee. As forthright instructor Bobbie, Lisa Ann Walter (2003's "Bruce Almighty") is engaging and appropriately acid-tongued. Even Nick Cannon (2003's "Love Don't Cost a Thing"), who has somewhat slummed his way through a few disposable teen films in the past, conveys warmth and excellent comic timing as the junior private investigator sent out to keep an eye on John.

For every scene in "Shall We Dance" that gets things all wrong—one dramatic instance between Beverly and John in a parking garage loses all emotional involvement by the ill-advised idea that it take place with Beverly blocking traffic and other cars honking to get out of their way—there are several that are electric. An after-hours tango dance between John and Paulina is perfectly scored to their steps and pulsatingly choreographed. And the inevitable dance competition near the climax, while a little obvious in its handling, puts to shame a crummy and flat similar scene in 2004's monstrosity, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights."

"Shall We Dance" could have afforded to throw out its sappier interludes near the end and have them replaced with something less obtrusive, but it can't be denied that the film knows its way on and around the dance floor. It is but a fizzy, light entertainment, and director Peter Chelsom injects the proceedings with a big heart and a quick-witted eye for some flashy musical steps and maneuvers.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman