The point that “Shall We Dance” thinks it’s making is that dance has the power to change people’s hearts and minds. But that point is underdeveloped and mishandled. So the point it winds up making instead is that Jennifer Lopez is SO PRETTY that a happily married man will flirt with infidelity and take dance lessons just so he can be in the same room as her. That may be true, but the movie still bites.
It stars Richard Gere as John Clark, a Chicago estate lawyer with a good, albeit humdrum, life. He’s been married to his wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) for 19 years, they have two perfectly normal teenage children, and everything seems fine, very fine indeed.
Then one day while riding the El train, John sees a gorgeous, sullen woman standing in the window of an upstairs dance studio in the bad part of town. He is captivated by her. After passing the same window on several subsequent days and always seeing the same gorgeous, sullen woman standing there — she reminds me of the dog in “The Triplets of Belleville” who runs upstairs to watch the train pass every hour — he hesitantly approaches the dance studio and signs up for lessons.
The woman is named Paulina, and of course she is played by J-Lo, a woman I firmly believe that every person in America is tired of. Paulina was a world-class ballroom dancer until a defeat last year, after which her partner-slash-boyfriend dumped her. She has now returned to Miss Mitzi’s dance academy to be depressed and to dance in semi-darkness in the room adjacent to the one where the students are (except for when the train passes, at which point she is always standing forlornly in the window).
John is one of only three class members. The other two are the obese Vern (Omar Miller), seeking to lose weight before asking his girlfriend to marry him; and Chic (Bobby Cannavale), the uber-straight ladies’ man who, in movie parlance, is so completely heterosexual and testosterone-driven that he must, in fact, be a closet homosexual. Their instructor is Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), a charming older woman. They are harangued and bothered by Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), a brassy bottle-blonde who practices at the studio so one day she can be a big famous dancer, and who is obnoxious to strangers and wears stretch pants everywhere in the meantime.
The film’s aforementioned biting stems from its absolute refusal to explain why John does anything. Paulina leads him to the dance studio, and while he obviously is attracted to her, he shows no signs of wanting to initiate an affair. He’s certainly not unhappy with his wife, whom he loves. So what’s he doing there?
The dance lessons are already inexplicable, but then there’s more: He keeps the dancing a secret from his wife and children. This makes Beverly suspect he is having an affair, which makes her hire a private investigator (Richard Jenkins), who tells her that in fact he is taking dancing lessons. I ask you this, movie: If Beverly was going to find out anyway, wouldn’t it have been easier to just have John TELL HER? Then you wouldn’t have had to include the P.I. at all, and you’d have saved precious time.
John eventually gives Beverly his reason for not having told her about the dance lessons up front: He didn’t want to admit that he wanted to be happier. Her reaction is the same as mine. We both thought, “Wait, you were unhappy? How come I didn’t know?” The film, directed by Peter Chelsom (“Town & Country,” “Serendipity”), only spends about two minutes establishing John and Beverly’s marriage, but even that would be enough time to show a secret longing or an unsatisfied desire. Even if John himself doesn’t know what he wants, there are ways of conveying, through carefully chosen dialogue and action, that something’s missing. The film does none of that. And so for most of the movie, we have no idea why anything is happening.
It’s a simple-minded film, really, chock-full of tiny subplots among the dance-class members that are given only a passing glance before they’re finally “resolved.” Miss Mitzi is seen taking little swigs of liquor from a flask. Why? So that later, we can see her pull out the flask, consider it a moment, then put it back, having apparently conquered the problem of alcoholism that we never knew she had. And there’s Chic, the aforementioned really-really-straight guy who’s somewhat homophobic who turns out to be gay — a fact we learn in a five-second clip in the middle of a montage just before the closing credits. Blink and you’ll miss the resolution of this fascinating character arc.
There are good movies about the transformative power of dance, but all this one does is parade stock characters around the screen, hint at tiny changes they’ve made in their lives, and then parade them around some more. Audrey Wells (“Under the Tuscan Sun”), who adapted the screenplay from the 1997 Japanese film on which it is based, has missed the point of the original, and director Chelsom doesn’t have a clue, either.
D+ (1 hr., 46 min.; )