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Shall We Dance?

Ill-conceived American remake loses its footing

Shall We Dance? (1996) was a touching, albeit quaint Japanese import that documented one middle-aged businessman's struggle against the tedium of routine and the quiet desperation of his home life. One night, on the train ride home, he glimpses a beautiful woman standing in the window of a ballroom-dancing school. Her forlorn expression seems to reflect the emptiness in his soul, and soon, piqued by curiosity and something akin to a youthful crush, he finds himself learning the rumba and the waltz, revitalizing his tired spirit in the process.

The American remake, starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, stays stringently faithful to the original, careful not to tamper with a winning formula. But the modest charms of Masayuki Suo's original get lost in translation, and 2004's Shall We Dance? is slick schlock, weighed down by bland, underdeveloped characters and a script with all the sensibilities of a tired sitcom.

What were they thinking? Was Gere so determined to reprise his acclaimed song-and-dance turn in Chicago that he enlisted in a project so utterly devoid of energy and wit? Did J.Lo bother to read a script that reduces her to so much window dressing, muttering inanities like, "A man with a handkerchief? I didn't know they made those anymore"? And couldn't someone have spared Stanley Tucci the indignity of his role as the flamboyant Link Peterson, a businessman-by-day, dancer-by-night whose defining characteristic is his baldness?

The story is simple. John Clark (Gere) is a devoted husband and father who has lost his mojo. Much to his surprise, he rediscovers it through his sudden passion for dance, inspired, of course, by his desire to bed Jenny from the Bronx. When his advances are rebuffed, John briefly considers leaving the dance studio for good, but a strange thing happens on the way to the inevitable ballroom competition looming ahead: John realizes that all this fancy footwork is injecting some joie into his vivre.

Naturally, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), John's suspicious wife, begins to wonder what's keeping her husband out so late and, for that matter, why he's dancing with himself, Billy Idol-style, into the wee hours. So she does what any sensible, intelligent woman would do -- she hires a private detective! (Asking might have worked, too, but this is the kind of movie where characters are required to act like buffoons in order to push forward a plot that would self-destruct if anyone used a little common sense.)

While Beverly is temporarily oh-so-relieved to learn that John hasn't been cheating, she's stung and more than a little confused by his failure to come clean about his unlikely hobby -- not to mention his clumsily contrived friendship with the breathtaking Paulina (Lopez). John spends the rest of the movie trying to please both women, wearing out his new dancing shoes in the process.

Based in a Japanese society that regarded ballroom dancing as a scandalous diversion, the original Shall We Dance? suggested that the foxtrot and the cha-cha could be both spiritually invigorating and erotic. Director Peter Chelsom's remake seems to find in dance a source of crude slapstick humor, complete with pratfalls, splitting dresses and tumbling hairpieces. It is a mostly charmless affair, meandering toward a forced and rather obvious conclusion.

Stars: 1.5 out of 5