Shall We Dance?
If the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez-fronted Shall We Dance? were indeed a dance, it would be something akin to the Macarena or the latest club dance craze. Crowd-pleasing. Fluffy fun. A temporary thrill.
In the opening scenes, John Clark (Gere), a successful Chicago lawyer, is going through his daily routine-rise early, mechanically kiss the wife goodbye, ride the El to work, spend all day buried in paperwork, go home late to an uber-busy family life. In case we somehow miss his ennui from these scenes and from his forlorn looks, Clark's voice-over explains a common question he fields when he's finished drawing up wills for his clients: "Is that it then?"
Into this life of quiet desperation waltzes J-Lo-literally. As he's riding home on the El one night, John sees Paulina (Lopez) staring with a matching melancholy expression out the window of Miss Mitzi's Dance School. After seeing her there three nights in a row, John impulsively hops off the train at the last minute one evening and follows her haunting countenance like a moth drawn to a lovely but dangerous flame. When he discovers this beautiful woman is a dance instructor, he signs up for ballroom dancing classes. And it's in this quirky little dance studio that the plot, kitschy characters, and John's well-ordered world unfold.
This soft-shoeing tale of being roused from life's ruts is based on a 1996 Japanese subtitled movie of the same name. In contrast to this American remake, if that flick were a dance, it would be a waltz. Nuanced. Sophisticated. A classic.
There are some fundamental reasons the Japanese version works better. In the opening scenes, a voice-over (likely added for American distribution) explains that in Japan, a country where even married couples don't touch in public or say "I love you," ballroom dancing is regarded with much suspicion. Therefore, when the main character, Shohei Sugiyama (who's more convincingly sullen than Gere's John), signs up for a dance class, he's really taking a risk. He might as well be having an affair, for the controversy this stirs. Also, in a culture known for workaholism and emotional distance even in marriage, it's much more believable that Sugiyama would be able to hide this new passion. And there's just something utterly charming about a stereotypically stoic Japanese businessman taking a ballroom dancing class. The surprising juxtaposition is one of the foundational strengths of the original movie. But in the U.S., countless "suits" take ballroom dancing classes; thus, the intrigue is missing.
Overall, the U.S. version is a pleasing, refreshingly clean romantic comedy that will no doubt draw raves from the chick flick-loving set (as well as inspire increased attendance in ballroom dancing classes everywhere). The characters are likable, the dance scenes are entertaining, and some of the action is laugh-out-loud funny. There are even a few life lessons nestled amidst the fancy footwork.
That said, there are a few plot flaws, mostly stemming from relocating this film from Japan to the U.S. Probably the most problematic of these is that the main character, John, seems too busy as opposed to emotionally numb and distanced from his family (as in the original). You get the sense John has a loving relationship with his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), and their two teenage children. While it's nice to see a family with close emotional ties, and it's relatable that their daily planners are on overdrive, it makes it less believable that a ballroom dancing class-one more activity in John's already jam-packed life-is going to help matters. We don't get the impression John needs "waking up" (as in the original) as much as he needs a long vacation with his wife. So taking a ballroom dancing class without her seems like it would only exacerbate his problems.