Keep On Dancing
“Is that all there is?” asked Peggy Lee in one of her most popular songs. “If that’s all there is, then keep on dancing.” As someone who’s danced most of my life, I think that’s excellent advice. Despite the discipline involved, there’s great joy in this physical art form -- and it gives one a sense of being in tune with the universal heartbeat. Shall We Dance? follows a bored middle-aged businessman as he surreptitiously discovers the happiness one kind of dancing -- ballroom -- can bring to his mundane life.
Portraying John Clark, the businessman in question, Richard Gere stunned me with a performance of great sensitivity, humor and dance ability. His character changes from a painfully shy and clumsy student to a partner with all the right moves, and I believed Gere every step of the way. Drawn to Miss Mitzy’s Ballroom Dancing lessons by a beautiful teacher named Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), John enrolls without telling Beverly (Susan Sarandon), his busy wife. When Beverly smells perfume on his shirts, she hires a sympathetic private detective (Richard Jenkins) and his erudite assistant (Nick Cannon) to find out what’s going on.
It’s interesting to see what Sarandon can do with the role of a relatively normal person instead of the edgy types she so often plays. In this film, she’s a loving wife and mother who also holds down a full-time job. Sarandon's character has no idea that her husband is unhappy. As with many of her performances, the eyes have it. Sarandon doesn’t do any of the big dance numbers, but she uses those enormous eyes to project all kinds of emotion. In the scene where Beverly first realizes her husband may be hiding something from her, Sarandon looks up at the camera with a surprised expression that’s worth the price of admission.
As the enigmatic Paulina, Lopez delivers her best work since Selena. She succeeds in making us very curious about why her character is so distant and somber. “You look on the outside like I feel on the inside,” John tells her. Paulina seldom smiles, but when she does, the entire screen lights up. And when she dances -- wow! Lopez’s long body lines, taut muscle tension and innate musicality combine to evoke memories of the great Cyd Charisse, whose gorgeous image briefly floats across the screen in a backdrop to one sequence.
Most of the humor in Shall We Dance? comes from the film’s colorful supporting cast. Stanley Tucci (The Terminal) is hilarious as a closet ballroom dancer; Lisa Ann Walter (from TV’s Life’s Work) had me in stitches with her Bette Midler-like comic flair; Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) and Omar Benson Miller (8 Mile), playing Gere’s dance classmates, made me smile every time they displayed their primitive approach to ballroom dancing.
Adapted from a popular Japanese movie, Shall We Dance? translates more successfully than I expected. The Japanese version is one of my favorite foreign language films, and I didn’t think it should be tampered with. Fortunately, director Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun) did a brilliant job of bringing the story to life in ways that make sense to American viewers, especially in terms of the need to rekindle passion in a relationship.
Audience members attending a Sneak Preview of this delightful movie applauded with enthusiasm as the end credits rolled, and I haven't seen that happen in a long time. Don’t be surprised if Shall We Dance? increases enrollment in ballroom dancing classes in the U.S.-- just like the original film did in Japan.
(Released by Miramax and rated “PG-13” for some sexual references and brief language. Reviewed after the Sneak Preview of September 25, 2004.)