Delicate and civilized, Masayuki Suo’s “Shall We Dance?” became one of the most popular foreign-language films to play American art houses in the late 1990s.
Miramax’s new American remake, starring Richard Gere as a bored middle-aged businessman who breaks out of his conformist trap by discovering the joys of ballroom dancing, follows Suo’s storyline fairly closely, but it lacks the soulful beauty of the original. At times, it’s downright crass.
Still, it gets the job done, it’s an unusually strong vehicle for Gere (who gets to expand on his “Chicago” tap-dancing), and it may even become a multiplex crowd-pleaser. There’s something irresistible about watching a group of amateurs putting on a show and breaking down their resistance to dance.
Directed by Peter Chelsom, whose movies (“Funny Bones,” “Town and Country”) often have a ragged tone, the remake clicks when it confines itself to Miss Mitzi’s Dance School, a failing dance studio where Chicago lawyer John Clark (Gere) secretly takes lessons from Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) and the studio’s owner, Mitzi (Anita Gillette).
He’s joined by a closeted co-worker, Link (Stanley Tucci), who pretends to be a football fanatic in order to hide his transvestite tendencies; an overweight kid, Vern (Omar Benson Miller), who wants to impress his fiancee; the mouthy Chic (Bobby Cannavale), who says he just wants to dance in order to pick up girls; and the flamboyantly angry Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter), who thinks men are a disappointment and reluctantly becomes John’s dance partner.
Unfortunately, John’s domestic life is never as interesting as the time he spends at Miss Mitzi’s. His wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) is a pleasant non-entity, and his kids register even less strongly. When he runs into his son on the way to the dance studio, or his daughter shows up just in time to distract and embarrass him, they seem like plot devices, not characters.
Sarandon can be a phenomenal actress, but not here. The tacky new script by Audrey Wells (“Under the Tuscan Sun”) simply makes Beverly look foolish as she hires a couple of detectives (Richard Jenkins, Nick Cannon) to find out if John is having an affair. There’s a hint of a flirtation between Beverly and one of the detectives, and between Paulina and John, but in both cases it’s just a tease.
The fact that these potential couples don’t get together could have been evidence of restraint on the part of the filmmakers, but it feels more like manipulation. Almost the only honesty to be found in “Shall We Dance?” is in the performances. Gere, who’s just getting better with age, seems completely comfortable with the mildly repressed, mildly likable John. Walter suggests a young Bette Midler, while Cannavale, the dynamo who drove “The Station Agent,” again comes close to stealing the movie.
If you didn’t see Suo’s original, you won’t know what you’re missing. On the other hand, you’ll be missing a lot. The 1996 version is definitely worth a rental.