The quaintly titled "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School" is a movie of sentiment, sweetness and nostalgia, a story hovering somewhere between realism and bittersweet fantasy.
Occurrences, coincidences and resolutions take on an adult fairy-tale quality, much of it genteel and preposterous. Director Randall Miller, who first hit upon the crux of the tale for a shorter film about 15 years ago, would no doubt argue that truth, not reality, is the intent here.
And that can be fine, whether in the form of Southern Gothic or one of its many relatives. "Marilyn Hotchkiss," though, is too cute, too transparent, too precious and too much. It deals cleverly with memory, lost love, lost youth and thwarted hopes. But much of the time you flinch at its cloying sentimentality or shake your head at its transparent efforts to manipulate. Certainly the cast is the stuff of independent movie dreams: Robert Carlyle ("The Full Monty"), John Goodman, Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin, Donnie Wahlberg and, in cameos, Danny DeVito, Camryn Manheim, Ernie Hudson and Sonia Braga. Carlyle is at the center as Frank, a baker and widower still grieving over his wife's suicide. Driving on the highway, he comes upon another motorist (Goodman) trapped in his vehicle after an accident. The man, Steve, was hurrying to a reunion he'd arranged 40 years ago with a young girl he knew in his ballroom dancing class.
But Steve is dying, and Frank picks up the mission, goes to the class, can't find the girl but meets the collection of eccentrics now enrolled in the ballroom class, to whom time has been unkind. Marilyn Hotchkiss herself is deceased, replaced by her daughter (Steenburgen), and the students are middle-aged and dowdy too, crusty echoes of yesterday's junior variety.
The movie mixes past, present and future, intermingling scenes of Steve's experiences as a young adolescent with Frank and Steve's dialogue in the ambulance and with events later, after Frank starts coming to the class each week on his own. The class and Steve's mission are a kind of time capsule of wounded, frightened, repressed or disillusioned souls hungry for some sort of emotional anchor. For Frank, there's Meredith (Tomei), a descendant of Laura in "The Glass Menagerie," disabled and overly protected by a noxious bully (Wahlberg).
Most of the acting talent gets lost in the crowd. Goodman's slow dance of death in the ambulance is excruciatingly hammy, while the other players are given too little screen time, with the surprising exception, perhaps, of Wahlberg and the always intriguing, unpredictable Carlyle.
Boomers might be amused by the rare, resonating homage to that era when pre-adolescents were sent to cotillions to learn manners and the mambo, and there are some well-crafted dance sequences. But "Marilyn Hotchkiss" is poignant storytelling and serio-comic treacle on overload, a little too charming and wondrous to be believed.
"Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School"
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature situations and language
A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Director-editor Randall Miller. Screenplay Miller, Jody Savin. Producers Miller, Savin, Morris, Ruskin, Eileen Craft. Director of photography Jonathan Sela. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
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