Going in, I didn't have a good feeling about Shall We Dance?, which stars Richard Gere as a successful Chicago lawyer who has a wonderful wife (Susan Sarandon), great kids, a beautiful home and - he's as surprised to learn this as we are - a bad case of dancing feet. One of my reservations was British director Peter Chelsom, who missed with Serendipity and missed by a mile with Town & Country. But my main reservation was that Shall We Dance? is based on a 1996 Japanese film of the same name. Would Masayuki Suo's modest movie about modest people, for whom ballroom dancing is considered akin to prostitution, translate to the City of Big Shoulders, where ballroom dancing is considered akin to square dancing - fun, if you happen to be 75 or older? Would Richard Gere ever do the two-step?
Would he ever. One of the many pleasures of Shall We Dance? is Gere's willingness to shed the vanity that has always been a part of his performances, for better or worse. As a man who has everything but still lacks something, Gere allows sadness to drape itself around him, dropping his face and slumping his shoulders. His scenes with Sarandon are snapshots of a couple who've loved each other so long they take it for granted. But while riding the train home one night, Gere's John notices a lovely, lonely woman in a window. It's Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), an instructor at Miss Mitzi's Dance School, and she's all it takes to get John enrolled in a ballroom-dancing course. However, the course is taught by Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), a seen-better-days danseuse who sneaks sips from a bottle between the rumba and the cha-cha.
Admirers of Strictly Ballroom will recognize the scenes where John learns how to put one foot in front of the other, but Chelsom isn't after the big laughs of that wacky-tacky comedy - not all the time, anyway. His affection for ballroom dancing isn't smothered in camp. And the performances he's drawn from his cast, right down to the smallest roles, are funny, yet human. Bobby Cannavale and Omar Benson Miller play John's classmates, with four left feet between them. And Lisa Ann Walter comes on like gangbusters as Bobbie, a woman with a self-proclaimed big butt and an even bigger mouth. As for Lopez, she spends the first half of the movie standing on the edge of the dance floor, but just when you start to think the story's gone on without her, she and Gere engage in a tango that would have any wife calling her lawyer.
Her chin up, her back straight, her caboose seeming to belong to some other train entirely, Lopez looks sensational. And her dancing, if not up to world-championship standards, is entirely credible. Only her little-girl voice, which doesn't square with her big-girl body, causes us to wonder why John would throw his life away for Paulina. Not that he's truly tempted. Once inside Miss Mitzi's, he soon learns how to tell the dancer from the dance, and it's the dance he's in love with. Like the Japanese version, this one treats ballroom dancing as a guilty pleasure, but the guilt has less to do with sexiness and more to do with nerdiness. John is essentially a closet case, the closet lined with fur and sequins. But if this charming little movie proves anything, it's that there's a place on the dance floor for everyone. It removes the guilt, leaving only the pleasure.