REVIEW: Shall We Dance?
Most dance movies have a whiff of adolescent funk about
them. Some fall into the “you
go” subset, wherein one roots for an aspiring twinkletoes
Night Fever, Flashdance). The others are members of
the girly-porn phylum, in which dance serves as a PG-rated metaphor
for sexual awakening (Footloose, Dirty Dancing). Shall
We Dance?, a remake of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name,
however, draws on elements of both, but replaces blossoming youth
with something more gravity-bound — the malaise of a middle-aged
Why pity John Clark (Richard Gere)? He’s a well-off, happily
married accountant with a nice house in the Chicago suburbs. His life seems perfect…but
his children are busy with their cellphones and social lives, and his wife Beverly
(Susan Sarandon) is a loving but harried executive with whom he has drive-by
conversations as she heads out the door. Pondering his situation in a mealy voiceover
on the train home, John mulls a question his clients ask him as they sign their
wills: “Is that it, then?”
Once he spots the lovely, forlorn Paulina (Jennifer Lopez)
standing a dance-school window, he realizes the answer is no. Poor
Lo — she’s
posed in a haze of red light like a shopfront Amsterdam whore, and for all of
John’s sighs and pinched white-knight yearnings, his libido is clearly what drags
him off the train and into the studio. “The sign said we could watch,” he gasps
out to no avail — she unceremoniously signs him up for classes.
Thus begins John’s descent into the world of ballroom dance,
populated with the usual “madcap” Hollywood suspects: the fatty, the frowzy,
and the freaky. The fatty sports roaring armpit stains, the frowzy frau twitches
off her fake ponytail mid-meal, and in a bit of an inside joke, Gere puts up
with the slings and arrows of homo innuendo from the freak.
Beetling between scenes and characters, the film doesn’t give much of a sense of John or Paulina — not a grievous loss in the case of the spongy Gere. But for all its missteps, Shall We Dance? has partially cracked the code of J. Lo, who, despite her picante reputation, projects a relentlessly cool can-do-ism in her acting. Her dancing, however, is where Lopez sizzles, and Shall We Dance? makes ample use of her skills. “This dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal wish,” she breathes in her baby-doll voice, hurling her partner to the floor. A bit later, she takes Gere on in a tension-filled tango — I
squirmed in my seat, sweat trickling.
Not surprisingly, Lopez is less successful in conveying the sad-swan allure that supposedly draws John off the train and into her orbit — a haunting mystery that Tamiyo Kusakari, the ballet dancer who played the original Lo role, had in spades. The remake has replaced the original’s real pathos with a bit of heat — not
a surprising swap, considering the difficulty of translating certain Japanese
tropes: the silent angst of the beaten-down white-collar male,
the crushing pressure of social conformity, shivering melancholy honed to a high
aesthetic. When the two worlds of Gere’s Japanese counterpart collide — the Technicolor realm of the dance floor and his dutiful, grey life — the crash is devastating, and not the least because the slower-paced original gives itself the space to explore queasy alienation and men’s secret, thwarted yearning to escape their strait-jacketed roles.
The remake, in contrast, plays a little footsie with existential
despair but pulls back soon enough. John’s just got the bourgeois blues, it turns
out — nothing a little frotteur fandango won’t fix. As we watch him romp
around the kitchen with his wife, a familiar question comes to mind: Is that
it, then? — Noy Thrupkaew