Right from the start, “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School” is long on good intentions but short on believability. It begins with a man witnessing a single-car accident that will surely result in the death of the driver. In shock, the dying man speaks to the bystander, and they carry on a conversation — beginning while the witness is still some 30 feet away from the car.
I say the man would either hurry to the car so he could talk to the victim, or, if he’s horrified and in a state of shock himself, he would stay away and not speak at all. But you don’t have a shouted conversation with a dying man from 10 yards away, unless you’re in a movie and the director thinks that will make it more dramatic.
The dying man tells the witness why he was in such a hurry: He’s supposed to have a long-planned reunion with his childhood sweetheart tonight at Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. Now unable to make it, what with the imminent death and all, he implores the bystander to go in his place, to find Lisa and tell her what happened. So the man goes, and when he finds a room full of ballroom-dance students, rather than asking someone to please point out Lisa to him, or even standing in the center of the room and shouting, “Lisa!,” he instead dances with every woman in the place, asking each one individually, after several moments of awkward waltzing, if she is Lisa. Again, this is not what a person would do unless he were in a movie where the writer thought it would be funnier that way.
The writer and director in this case are the same person, Randall Miller, who is offering this mediocre soft-hearted dramedy as an expansion of his 1990 short film of the same name. It is one of those movies about loss, grieving and letting go, but it is also one of those movies about the transformative power of dance. Yet it is not very good at being either one of those kinds of movies.
The dying man is Steve Mills (John Goodman), and in flashback he tells the bystander, Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle), about the wistful days of 1962, when he was a chubby young kid being forced to take dance lessons with all the other kids at Marilyn Hotchkiss’ school. It was there he met Lisa, whom he was hurrying to be reunited with when he lost control of his car.
Lisa proves to be elusive for Frank, who finds that no one at the Marilyn Hotchkiss school knows her. But Frank, recently a widower and still grieving, could use a little companionship. So he joins the beginners’ class, which of course is composed of a variety of “interesting” characters, the likes of which you typically see in movies. One of them is played by Marisa Tomei, and she and Frank eventually have a lazy, underdeveloped relationship. She has a lunkheaded stepbrother played by Donnie Wahlberg, and that character is wildly inconsistent, punching somebody one minute and nearly crying over being expelled from the class the next.
It is a competent but ungraceful film, the sort of thing that needed more polish and probably more objective opinions during the writing and shooting process. The characters solve their problems so predictably, and the resolutions come so naturally, that it’s obvious at every step the characters aren’t real people but just actors reading from a script.
C (1 hr., 43 min.; )