"Dance is a very powerful drug," intones dance instructor Marienne Hotchkiss. "If you embrace it judiciously, dance can exorcise demons, access deep-seated emotions and color your life in joyous shades of brilliant magenta."
"Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School" oozes unrelenting earnestness that is overly maudlin and discounts the audience's ability to make its own inferences. Instead, every theme and idea is hammered home repeatedly, visually and in some cases, spelled out poetically by a suddenly eloquent and sage character.
Like other films before it, "Hotchkiss" centers on the transcendent power of dance in the lives of mere mortals who have lost their way. Director Randall Miller took his 1990 award-winning short of the same name and recycles it as a charming flashback for one-third of the film, which is told in three different timelines.
In Timeline No. 1, a more recent flashback, widower/baker Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle) comes across a dying stranger in a car wreck. Steve Mills (John Goodman) reveals that he was on his way to meet a long-lost sweetheart from 40 years ago and, with his last breath, makes Frank promise to keep the appointment in his place.
Thus, in the present (Timeline No. 2), Frank finds himself doing the lindy hop with instructor Marienne (Mary Steenburgen) in front of eccentric dancer wannabes, in particular the timid Meredith (Marisa Tomei) and aggressive Randall (Donnie Wahlberg). Through dance, Frank finds the strength to move on from his loss, chucking his dead wife's clothes and ashes, getting his grief counseling group to join and buying new suits to dance in.
"Hotchkiss" tries to be uplifting, but often ends up depressing or even gruesome. Aside from Frank's melancholy journey, every time we see Goodman's character in flashback, he's dying the slowest, most excruciating death. Yet somehow Steve finds the energy to share the childhood experiences (Timeline No. 3 -- Miller's original short) that led to his promised rendezvous. I feel guilty, but each time he rallies and launches into another nostalgic anecdote, I just want him to die already.
Although one can't fault the film's optimistic message that one must get past life's pain in order to rediscover beauty, the approach is so heavy-handed and formulaic, one resents the oversimplification. When Frank first appears and gazes at a picture of a bride and dog, you know instantly what he tragically lost. And in the end, everyone achieves some sort of freedom: Frank lets go of his dead wife's memory; Marienne lets go of her mother's (the school's founder) identity; and Meredith breaks free of Randall's tyranny.
It's a shame really, since the cast is top notch, especially with Carlyle playing an introspective romantic lead opposite the sparkly Tomei and a jealous, wonderully hammy Wahlberg. Even Steenburgen's rather affected, eccentric take on a woman stuck in the past has a curious charm that seems real.
Unfortunately, even all the sugary moments won't help the bitter pill of epiphany being shoved down the moviegoer's throat. Waltz past "Hotchkiss" and rent the original "Shall We Dance?" instead.