Shall We Dance? is a big, charmless Hollywood reworking of a small and charming Japanese film that was a surprise international hit several years back. (Unfortunately the Japanese film is not available on video; since Miramax distributed both films, they doubtless have kept the video off the market in anticipation of this remake.)
The story is slight — a married man, intrigued by the figure of a woman in the window of a dance school, overcomes initial resistance and clandestinely goes to the school, signing up for lessons. It turns out that it is not the woman, but the dance itself that proves liberating for him, providing a positive emotional punch to a life that had become routine and rather joyless.
This is a case where cultural differences don’t translate well. In Japan, a society that abides by deeply ingrained traditions, family life and relationships between spouses are more rigidly structured than they are in the United States. Add to that the factor that, to the Japanese, ballroom dancing is of only marginal respectability, so there is a strong motivational grounding for the secretive behavior of the hero.
Buy why in the world would John Clark (Richard Gere), an ostensibly happily married American man, feel it necessary to conceal from his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), his interest in ballroom dance lessons? In the U.S. there is no stigma attached to dancing (maybe except among some died-in-the-wool Methodists and there is no indication that the Clarks are religious folks).
Audrey Wells’ badly flawed adaptation of the original screenplay tries to bridge this cultural gap but it doesn’t work. The initial motivation in going to the dance studio was the figure of the girl, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), so that Clark’s original itch was for some extra-marital activity, information he would not likely share with his wife. That, of course, is not what he confesses to her when it all comes out, so if he, like Jimmy Carter, lusted for another woman (albeit the affair was unconsummated), then his marriage to Beverly maybe isn’t working so well in the sack. On top of that, and more importantly, he’s less honest than the ex-President–he won’t even confess his yen for some outside hanky-panky to his wife, though, in fact, he is innocent of transgression. In the major confession scene, then, Clark comes off as a complete hypocrite and this purportedly ideal marriage (not to speak of the misguided screenplay) is seriously impaired.
Viewers might be willing to suspend disbelief despite these fundamental plot weaknesses if the screen chemistry is hot. Sarandon looks terrific and always brings intelligence to her portrayals, but here her intelligence is not balanced by Gere, whose acting has become so lazy and opaque that whatever intelligence is there remains completely hidden. Jennifer Lopez looks great, too, and she gives a nicely understated performance as the dance teacher, a character that combines passion for the dance with a heavy-hearted sadness over a lost love. Gere doesn’t begin to match her passion; he’s so lacking in fire that he comes off as a narcissistic bore.
There are a handful of subplots with the other students at the dance studio, all of them stock characters, all of them with predictable resolutions. If you like ballroom, watch the championships on PBS–they’re a whole lot more fun. And, if Miramax ever wises up and releases the Japanese version on video, that is a joy that can be highly recommended.