"Shall We Dance?" makes the move from Tokyo to Chicago with the deftness of Fred Astaire leading Ginger Rogers. In Masayuki Suo's 1996 version, a Tokyo office manager who's hit a bored and dissatisfied passage in his life catches a glimpse of a beautiful young woman peering somberly out a window of a ballroom dancing school as his commuter train whisks by. So transfixed is he by this vision of loveliness that he signs up for lessons at the school.
The very same thing happens to Richard Gere's John Clark, a successful lawyer, when he takes his regular train ride to his home in the suburbs one evening and spots Jennifer Lopez's Paulina looking out a window in Miss Mitzi's Ballroom Dancing School.
Clark is a great deal more successful than his Japanese counterpart, and he has a wonderful wife in Susan Sarandon's Beverly, a department store executive. The Clarks have been married 19 years, have two terrific teen-aged children and a tastefully expensive home. As settled as he is in a good life, Clark is beginning to feel a bit trapped in a routine existence.
As class begins, Paulina makes it clear that John is not going to get anywhere with her. She is a dedicated professional ballroom dancer who has suffered a career setback and is determined to make a comeback. A gentleman who might well not have betrayed his wife even if tempted, John accepts Paulina's declaration and gets on with the weekly Wednesday evening lessons. Anyone who has seen "Chicago" will know that Gere will soon transform John, a far more assured and polished man than the Japanese office manager, into a ballroom sensation.
John is the centerpiece of an appealing ensemble. At the school he discovers that his longtime office colleague (Stanley Tucci) is a bewigged closet tango wizard, and his fellow novices are an amiable giant (Omar Benson Miller) and a slick dude (Bobby Cannavale). Keeping things lively is Lisa Ann Walter's Bobbie, a curvaceous, painfully blunt but highly gifted dancer. Broadway veteran Anita Gillette is the warm-hearted and wise Miss Mitzi, a retired ballroom dancer.
"Shall We Dance?" is a sleek Hollywood crowd-pleaser, more movie than art film, but its makers have wisely stuck not only to the spirit but often even to the letter of the original. Writer Audrey Wells and director Peter Chelsom, fondly remembered for "Hear My Song," have understood well that transposing the story from Japan to America involved not tinkering with plot and characterization as much as maneuvering a cultural shift.
Both films celebrate the enduring dazzle and romance of ballroom dancing, but Suo's version was also a wry comment on the way a tradition of impassive formality continues to inhibit ordinary Japanese people, where it is not unusual for men to go out for the evening alone while their wives stay at home.
Beyond the usual depiction of American married couples caught up in too-busy lives, Chelsom and Wells have no such easy reason as to why John doesn't simply ask Beverly to join him in the lessons, or why he doesn't tell her he's taking classes. Wells has to come up eventually with an explanation from John, and the disarming conviction with which Gere delivers it bears the true mark of a star — you believe him.
Gere and Sarandon make middle-age seem enviably alluring, and Lopez is as disciplined as Paulina in one of her best performances yet. She and Gere perform a tango in the darkened dance studio that totally sizzles. Tucci, Walter, Gillette and others provide a hearty and amusing support. If the original "Shall We Dance?" was a film ripe for a Hollywood remake, the new "Shall We Dance?" cries out to become a stage musical in its next incarnation.
'Shall We Dance?'
MPAA rating: PG 13 for some sexual references and brief language.
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare.
Richard Gere...John Clark
Susan Sarandon...Beverly Clark
Lisa Ann Walter...Bobbie
A Miramax Films presentation. Director Peter Chelsom. Producer Simon Fields. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Julie Goldstein. Screenplay by Audrey Wells; based on the Altamira Pictures film "Shall We Dance?" written by Masayuki Suo. Cinematographer John de Borman. Editors Charles Ireland, Robert Leighton. Music Gabriel Yared, John Altman. Choreographer John O'Connell. Costumes Sophie de Rakoff. Production designer Caroline Hanania. Art director Sue Chan. Set decorator Carolyn (Cal) Loucks. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times