You can imagine the thinking behind Shall We Dance? Hey, it starts, let’s put on this show: Richard Gere, recently adored for his tentative tapping in Chicago, will be the dance student, and Jennifer Lopez, former fly girl extraordinaire, will be his teacher. Separately downcast and lonely, together, they will make movie magic.
Ah well, it doesn’t quite work out that way. This insipid remake of Masayuki Suo’s quietly romantic comedy, Shall we dansu? (1996), is set in Chicago, where each night, generic businessman John (Gere) rides the El home from work. One evening, he takes notice of a lovely girl — Paulina (Lopez) — in a dance studio window, her face poignant and perfectly composed. Though he is happily married to accommodating, efficient, spirited Beverly (Susan Sarandon), with whom he shares a nice suburban home and a couple of good kids (who do play like props here), he feels that he’s lacking “something.” He knows not what that is, but he’s guessing it is not, as Beverly keeps pressing, “what comes in a box.” John is such a nice guy, however, that he’s unable even to admit to his wife that he’s unhappy, and she apparently keeps herself busy so she doesn’t have to trouble him. He thinks she just doesn’t notice, but he’s so self-involved that he can’t imagine that 14-year-old girls like his daughter learn to use their cell phones from their parents.
Lovely and distant, Paulina serves as inspiration: John will take dancing lessons, he’ll keep a secret from his family, and he’ll meet the mysterious girl in the window. Eager but also timid, he makes a couple of runs at the dance studio doorway before he actually enters, whereupon he’s assailed by the buxom, feather-boa-ed Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter). The studio, it turns out, is owned by the also melancholy Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), who tipples from her flask when her students have their backs turned. John joins a class with two other misfit boys, Chic (Bobby Cannavale) and Vern (Omar Miller), and starts spending his Wednesday evenings learning to waltz, promenade, and rumba (this lesson is especially thrilling, as the men stand with jaws agape before Paulina’s demonstration: tossing Bobbie to the floor, she breathes, “Then finish! Like she’s ruined you for life!”). The men are embarrassed, confused, and concerned that they appear manly as they endeavor to be graceful.
When Miss Mitzi is absent one evening, the class has the good fortune to work with The Princess, Paulina, so deemed because she remains remote and majestic, even in her much-on-display sorrow. Local legend has it that she made it to a fancy European dance competition some years back, only to have her partner/lover abandon her, thus breaking her heart and leading to her present ice queeny self-performance. For her adolescent-acting students, this backstory only makes The Princess more enticing: she’s not only gorgeous, athletic, and lithe, she’s also in need of solace. She’s sexy and fragile, voluptuous and vulnerable, the ideal girl-woman for a self-confident he-man.
John, though smitten with Paulina, isn’t quite this ideal man, or at least he doesn’t know he is. And so the film becomes his journey, from slightly sad guy to dancing wonder. (Paulina’s story is given short shrift, so she ends up the “exotic” vehicle for his achievement.) Given that John is of a certain age and appearance — Richard Gere’s, to be exact — Shall We Dance? allows you briefly to imagine that its titular question means something vaguely metaphorical, that John and Paulina, despite a rocky first few encounters in which she’s rightly suspicious of his motives for dancing, might find their way toward reciprocal passion or some conventional romance movie finale. At the same time, however, the film includes a seeming complication in Beverly, so grounded and pleasant that she doesn’t appear “deserving” of abandonment herself (as this would make John as caddish as Paulina’s ex).
In order to stretch out the (non) suspense, Shall We Dance? takes a roundabout route to John’s self-fulfillment, not unlike that taken by Diane Lane in screenwriter Audrey Wells’ previous adaptation, Under the Tuscan Sun. He is surrounded not only by his quirky classmates, who have their own issues (Vern is hoping to marry his perpetually patient girl [Mya] and Chic is discovering something about his sexual inclinations), but also by a quirky coworker, Link (Stanley Tucci, whose performance — not just the character — is so tacky as to be distracting). When they find one another at the studio, both are dancing secretly, but their mutual coming out is incidental rather than engaging. Yes, flamboyant Link embodies the more obtuse version of John’s dilemma, but it hardly illuminates the issues John faces: he remains inarticulate about his needs and his self-understanding throughout, relying on the women around him to fix everything.
Most disappointingly, Beverly must endure her own weird encounter with a private detective (Richard Jenkins), whom she hires to follow John. Though the detective and his Thoreau-quoting assistant Scotty (a too cutesy Nick Cannon) both suggest to her that she’s digging into an area she might best leave undug, she persists, and of course imagines the worst once she sees photos of the lovely Paulina. That she ends up schooling the detective, a specialist in infidelity cases, on the meaning of marriage (“We all need a witness to our lives”), in a bar, no less, only underlines the silliness of her function. The admirably sensible and supportive woman, she waits for her man to figure himself out, then embraces him for being so clever.
The film’s infinitely more interesting questions do not have to do with John’s expedition to emotional health, but its occasional observations regarding gendered expectations and desires, particularly within the confines of middle class “happy endings.” Unable or unwilling to take these questions seriously, Shall We Dance? leaves them to the quirky folks’ jokes and slapstick, which is too bad, as such uncertainties lie at the heart of John’s middling crisis.