John Clark (Richard Gere) is a middle-aged estate lawyer in Chicago. As he rides the EL home every night he sees a beautiful young woman standing in the window of Madam Mitzi’s Dance Studio. He is in a kind of mid-life crisis and one evening gets off the train to check out the studio. The young woman, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), convinces him to sign up for dance lessons that are starting that very night. Unfortunately for John, the teacher is the more senior Miss Mitzi herself (Anita Gilette) who imbibes on the side to have the courage to face new dance students. The other students are Chic (Bobby Cannavale) Vern (Omar Benson Miller.)
John does sign up for the lessons but he is obviously more attracted by Paulina than dance. Before long she lets him know that she doesn’t socialize with students. He almost quits, but returns to finish the lessons.
Shall We Dance? is an amusing film and I did enjoy it. However, I really liked the 1996 Japanese film on which it is based: Dansu Wo Shimasho Ka (aka Shall We Dansu?). The original captured the contrast and tension between the Japanese business culture and simple living very well and was more finely tuned into the characters than the 2004 US version.
There is an existential dimension to John Clark’s search for meaning that the film articulates well (in a way that reminded me of Moonstruck) as we find out when his wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) hires a private detective to discover what he is up to. She asks: why does a man who has been doing the same thing the same way for twenty years suddenly change his pattern? The PI’s assistant Scottie (Nick Cannon) responds with a quote from Thoreau: “’Most men live lives of quiet desperation [and go to their graves with their song still in them]’ – maybe the desperation became too much for him.”
Towards the end of the film, after Beverly knows the truth, she and John talk about marriage. She says that a person gets married so that there will be a witness to their lives, to each other’s life and that someone will remember them. I thought the analogy between marriage and dance was well made in the film.
Stanley Tucci as Link, John’s colleague who does ballroom dancing wearing a wig, is excellent comic relief as is Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), who works 12 hour days to have enough money for dance costumes. Both of these characters, as well as John's co-students, make their own journeys expressed through dance.
Shall We Dance is a feel-good movie with some really good laughs and dancing (but not enough; if you want to see a lot of excellent dancing see Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Strictly Ballroom). I chatted with some people after the film and one woman said that Jennifer Lopez really bothered her because she was too beautiful for the part and that her moodiness seemed false. Personally, I think the roles were well cast and acted; if anything was “wrong” with the film it was a bit too predictable - and I was distracted because I was constantly comparing it to the Japanese version.
Will we regret at the end of our lives, for those of us who may not dance, that we never learned? Maybe.
(I begged my Grandmother for tap lessons when I was in second grade. After six weeks there was a recital; I came out on stage late. They gave me a plastic trophy and said I didn't need to come back anymore. Imagine! And my Grandma was paying for those lessons!!)