Movie Review: Shall We Dance

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A disenfranchised insurance man takes up ballroom dancing and discovers a new passion.

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Peter Chelsom, 2004

Bored with his long hours at an office job, John Clark (Richard Gere) spots a woman standing in a window during his train ride home one day and is entranced by her. Unbeknownst to his wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon), John goes to the woman’s dance studio to meet her. The woman, a dance instructor by the name of Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), manages to sign John up for a dance class for singles. John is surprised by how much he enjoys the classes, making friends at the studio. The dancing gives John new energy and something to look forward to in his life, but Beverly becomes suspicious of his nocturnal activities and hires private investigator Devine (Richard Jenkins) to follow him.

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I’m always a sucker for a dance movie, and Shall We Dance surprised me with how much I enjoyed it. It’s an effervescent film that overcomes flaws in storytelling with a committed cast and easy chemistry. This is an apparently fairly faithful remake of a Japanese film I haven’t seen. I didn’t know it was a remake until after I saw it, but there are certain aspects of the film that make more sense in that context. Aside from the dreary train scenes and the businessman narrative, the key issue here is Paulina. She’s a weirdly intense character, and there’s something that feels off about the relationship between her and Richard Gere’s John. She settles down into something more natural as the film progresses, and she nails the dance scenes, but the earlier intensity feels like something much more native to J-drama than an American film. A lot of the other roles translate nicely to New York, though, especially the other students. Bobby Cannavale’s OTT horndog, Omar Miller’s giant sweetheart who wants to impress his fiancĂ©, Stanley Tucci’s closeted ballroom lover, and Lisa Ann Walter’s loud-mouthed dreamer are all great in the supporting cast.

The sweetness of the story of Shall We Dance is cleverly undercut by some moments of genuine everyday drama. Moments of humiliation, of misunderstanding, of real problems in decades-old relationships surface in the characters’ lives and feel real and relatable. There’s a particularly good quote from Beverly about marriage being about having a witness to our lives that holds an honesty that cuts right through the film’s frothy exterior. However, there are some definite plotting and pacing problems. The film picks up steam as it goes along, but the first half hour or so is awkward, and certain major scenes feel oddly paced. The film also has a weird narration problem – it seems to forget that it uses the narrative device repeatedly, so the Richard Gere voice-over comes and goes. He’s fine in the lead, but he’s also oddly unbelievable in the role of an ordinary insurance worker. He also lacks agency for much of the film, getting dragged from one situation to the next. Still, it’s an overall fun film, with some nice choreography, and it comes by its uplifting ending honestly.

Shall We Dance on IMDb

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