2½ stars (out of 4)
"Shall We Dance?" is a well-meaning but overdressed Americanization of the charming 1996 Japanese romantic comedy about a repressed Tokyo businessman who blossoms at a local dance school. And it definitely has a glamor problem.
Where the original picture, written and directed by Masayuki Suo, starred the brilliant but very ordinary-looking leading actor Koji Yakusho as the prim and proper Shohei, the U.S. version has sleek looker Richard Gere as the supposedly mild-mannered Chicago executive John Clark--a buttoned-down married guy who develops a crush on a pretty young dance teacher (Jennifer Lopez as Paulina) and starts taking lessons, secretly, at her dance studio.
Can anyone really buy Gere as repressed? Or unfulfilled? Or as an awkward dancer? Even when he's playing somewhat ordinary types, like the hooker-chasing businessman in "Pretty Woman," Gere usually radiates a seductive charisma and pantherish grace that subverts the supposedly mundane part. One never doubts that he's capable of getting the girl, no matter how many hangdog expressions he assumes.
That's the case with this Yank "Shall We Dance?" The movie tries hard to duplicate the original's mood and story, but, like Gere or Lopez, is too much of a visual knockout to rope us in. The story line is almost identical--beginning with John's discovery of Paulina and the somewhat threadbare little school, Miss Mitzi's Studio, which he first glimpses from the "L" on his ride home. Miss Mitzi's becomes his island of romance in a humdrum world--and though John's puzzled spouse, Beverly (Susan Sarandon), suspects him of having an affair, the romance remains all on the dance floor, an affair of the mind and feet.
Directed by Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song," "Serendipity") and adapted by Audrey Wells ("Under the Tuscan Sun"), this movie has assets--a fine cast, smart lines, panache and shimmering production credits--that don't translate into anything very moving or funny. Wells has a brainy sense of humor and Chelsom a flair for comic desperation, but this time out their work seems lackluster.
So do the results from the engaging crew of dance tutors and pupils around J.Lo's almost atypically serene and romantic Paulina. Companionable to a man and woman, they include Anita Gillette's booze-friendly Miss Mitzi and stellar lineup of pupils: "The Station Agent's" Bobby Cannavale as the "methinks-he-doth-protest-too-much" tough guy Chic; "Breaking News'" Lisa Ann Walter as brassy, blowzy Bette Midler-type Bobbie and "8 Mile's" Omar Benson Miller as the hulking Vern.
Stanley Tucci pops up in Naoto Takenaka's original showcase role of the office mouse turned long-haired dance tiger, here called Link Peterson, but even he has a glamor problem of sorts--though Tucci or Kevin Spacey might well have been the right actors to follow in Yakusho's dance steps.
"Shall We Dance?" may have been trapped by the welcome new vogue for movie musicals fed by unabashedly glamorous movies such as "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" (where Gere played the dancing shyster Billy Flynn). Those movies really were puttin' on the Ritz. But the original is a different kind of musical: gentler, lower-key, seemingly unassuming.
In this remake, audiences may actually be puzzled at the resolution, which fits the first film and Japanese culture but flies against the swooning all-or-nothing romanticism of the classic Hollywood musical. They may wonder too why so many of Miss Mitzi's teachers and pupils wind up in a top-flight international competition.
The American "Dance," which keeps reprising the Rodgers and Hammerstein number from "The King and I" as a signature melody, laudably tries to mix the intelligence and humanity of more popular foreign art-house movies with the high-sheen exhilaration of our own best movie musicals. But perhaps those aims are too contradictory; perhaps this nice little movie, imported here, has gotten too big for its dancing shoes.
"Shall We Dance?"
Directed by Peter Chelsom; written by Audrey Wells, based on the Japanese screenplay by Masayuki Suo; photographed by John De Borman; edited by Charles Ireland, Robert Leighton; production designed by Caroline Hanania; music by Gabriel Yared, John Altman; produced by Simon Fields. A Miramax release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and brief language).
John Clark - Richard Gere
Paulina - Jennifer Lopez
Beverly Clark - Susan Sarandon
Link - Stanley Tucci
Bobbie - Lisa Ann Walter
Devine - Richard Jenkins
Chic- Bobby Cannavale
Vern - Omar Benson Miller