Shall We Dance is a movie with no particular reason to exist, which is not to say that it’s all bad.
The story, about a middle-aged professional married man (Richard Gere) going through a midlife crisis who begins secretly taking ballroom dancing lessons without telling his wife (Susan Sarandon), is borrowed, sometimes scene for scene and word for word, from the charming 1996 Japanese original film by Masayuki Suo, where it all made much more sense than it does here, because it was set in Japan.
In a society of rigid social codes and expectations that place more emphasis on duty than self-fulfillment and in which even holding hands between spouses is considered risqué, there is considerable intrigue in the protagonist’s unconventional, potentially profoundly embarrassing behavior.
Screenwriter Audrey Wells transplants the story to Chicago, but she can’t translate what is essentially a Japanese identity crisis into American terms. Richard Gere (Chicago) returns to the Windy City for more dancing, but in touchy-feely America, where there are whole industries aimed at serving men in midlife crises, it’s hard to buy him feeling paralyzed about being in a funk, as if it’s the kind of thing one just doesn’t talk about, or feeling unable to talk to his wife about wanting to try something new. In this country, a husband who wants to break out of a rut and take ballroom dancing classes doesn’t do it secretly, he tells his wife and she thinks it’s romantic and they take them together.
Of course, in both films, what originally draws the protagonist into the dance school is the sight of a beautiful, sad woman gazing from the school window, glimpsed on a daily basis from an elevated train during the protagonist’s commute.
Watching the original, it’s possible to believe that what
draws Koji Yakusyo to the daily sight of Tamiyo Kusakari is not
just her beauty, but her sadness, which mirrors his own. In the
remake, when it’s John Clark (Richard Gere) watching every day
for the sight of pouty Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) and ultimately
taking dance classes at her school without telling wife Beverly
(Susan Sarandon), it’s hard to fathom any motivation beyond the
obvious draw of
In spite of all this, Shall We Dance manages to be fitfully entertaining and ultimately even charming, especially when it is not about John and Paulina, but John and Beverly. How often does a Hollywood romantic comedy celebrate romance between a middle-aged couple in a longtime marriage?
There are other things that work in Shall We Dance, including an ideally cast Stanley Tucci as Link, a coworker of John’s who has a secret life as a long-haired dance-floor wild man, and Omar Miller (8 Mile) as a sweet, overweight novice named Vern who says that his fiancée wants him to lose some weight. Tucci’s alter ego is so outrageous that you can actually buy him at least living in dread of anyone discovering his secret. Miller’s character has a secret too, of a quite different sort.
Still, fans of the original will find the remake pointlessly dumbed down and at times needlessly crass. John and Vern’s other fellow novice is a self-styled Lothario named Chic (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent) who says he wants to learn dancing because dancers are supposed to be great lovers, yet is overtly paranoid about the threat to his masculinity posed by practicing steps with another male novice rather than a woman. Needless to say, any homophobic character in a Hollywood movie must get his comeuppance, preferrably by the revelation that he’s in the closet himself (cf. American Beauty, etc.). At least here it’s confined to a fleeting throwaway sight gag at the very end of the film.
Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), the ditsy dance-school owner, has a surreptitious drinking problem, and the film plays for laughs her snatching swigs from a stashed flask. Then, somewhere in the middle of the film, she reaches for it and then puts it down — not because anything in particular has changed in her life, but because the picture is getting on and it’s time for things to start looking up.
Richard Jenkins (Cheaper by the Dozen) plays a private detective hired by Beverly when she begins to suspect that her husband may be having an affair. I liked a fleeting moment in his first scene in which, talking to Beverly as he finishes a sandwich, he gets up and brushes the crumbs off his hands into his office fish tank, talking all the while. But then the film ruins it by immediately giving the detective numerous other tics (combing his eyebrows, etc.), losing the sense of a character with a quirky habit in the obtrusive presence of filmmakers trying to add comic relief to a talking-heads scene.
Thankfully, the remake follows the original in not prolonging the whole suspected-infidelity subplot with artificial misunderstandings or tiresome melodrama, even though there is opportunity to do so: Beverly is shown pictures of John dancing with Paulina, but the detective correctly assures her that his usual instructor is the older Miss Mitzi, not Paulina.
Paulina actually figures surprisingly little in the story, and
the film wisely avoids any appearance of a romantic triangle,
real or perceived, averting the risk of becoming a remake of
Gere’s Unfaithful. At no time does anything that could be
mistaken for chemistry transpire between Gere and
One of the film’s more memorable moments occurs when Beverly finally understands what her husband is really up to all those late evenings. The detective offers to continue to observe John for awhile, but Beverly declines, not wishing to trespass further on her husband’s privacy. She then makes a remarkable comment about marriage, and the sense in which this union provides us with a "witness to our lives" — someone who assures us that our "life will not go uncared for, because I will care about it."
Beverly’s decision to drop the matter and wait for John to tell her about his dancing when he is ready to do so may or may not be one of the things that works better in the original Japanese context than it does here. Either way, it’s contradicted by a later scene in a parking garage, in which Beverly unexpectedly expresses an entirely different emotional reaction to John’s secretiveness — one that is entirely reasonable in itself, but which comes out of nowhere, with no sense of emotional logic or transition.
But a sweet climactic scene betweeen John and Beverly at the department store where she works as a buyer, complete with be-still-my-heart reaction shots from a Greek chorus of Beverly’s coworkers, goes a long way toward making up for this lapse. Even when it’s corny, it’s gratifying to see this sweet dynamic in a married couple with greying hair and crow’s feet. Couples looking for an enjoyable date-night movie could do worse than Shall We Dance. On the other hand, renting the Japanese original might be an even better idea.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.