2 stars (out of four)
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.
There are no dream sequences or surrealism, mind you, but a super-charged emotionalism, speckled with whimsy and the grotesque. 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 some 15 years ago, would no doubt argue that truth, not reality, is the aim here.
And that can be fine, whether in the form of Southern Gothic or one of its many relatives.
But "Marilyn Hotchkiss" is too cute, too transparent, too precious and ultimately 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. It's as if Miller is more intent on showering us with emotional honey than crafting a story believable enough to embody his message.
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 inexplicable 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 had arranged 40 years before with a young girl he knew in his ballroom dancing class.
But now Steve's dying, and, after aiding the accident victim, 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. Time has been unkind to the class and its ilk of students. Marilyn Hotchkiss herself is now deceased, replaced by her daughter (Steenburgen), and the students are middle-age 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 shows up as Steve's stand-in and starts coming to the class each week on his own. The class and Steve's mission are all a kind of time capsule of wounded, frightened, repressed or disillusioned souls hungry for some sort of emotional anchor. Like someone to dance with. Get it? 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 here by the rare, resonating homage to that era when preadolescents were sent to cotillions to learn manners and the mambo, and there are some well-crafted dance sequences serenading, among others, the Lindy hop. 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'
Directed by Randall Miller; screenplay by Miller and Jody Savin; photographed by Jonathan Sela; edited by Miller; music by Mark Adler; choreography by Joann Jansen; produced by Miller, Savin, Morris Ruskin and Eileen Craft. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release; opens Friday, April 7. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: PG-13 (mature situations and language).
Frank -- Robert Carlyle
Steve -- John Goodman
Meredith -- Marisa Tomei
Marienne -- Mary Steenburgen