Be this alive.
— Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), Shall We Dance?
The trouble is, you can’t manage someone else’s freedom.
— Peter Chelsom, commentary, Shall We Dance?
“When Miramax asked me to direct this film,” begins Peter Chelsom’s DVD commentary for Shall We Dance?, “I passed.” He explains, “The fact is I was very, very wary about remaking such a perfect original.” A year later, he read the script (which had not been revised, though the company said it had been) and agreed to direct. While you might admire his honesty, you might also wish that he had followed his first instinct. As lovely as his version can be, it also repeats and recalls its original, such that its “Americanization” can occasionally feel clumsy and strained. Still, as Chelsom notes more than once in his commentary, the reason to remake is not to appropriate or even do better. It is to explore and to approximate, to make art of another sort. It is also, of course, to turn a profit.
The first Shall We Dance? was directed by Masayuki Suo in 1996, a lovely, low-key romance. The new version is set in Chicago, where each night, generic businessman John (Richard Gere) rides the El home from work. One evening, he takes notice of a lovely girl, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), in a dance studio window, her face poignant and perfectly composed. John is ostensibly happily married to accommodating, efficient, spirited Beverly (Susan Sarandon, of whom Chelsom says, she’s “a match for [Gere], even a year older than him, which is a huge coup in Hollywood casting”), with whom he shares a nice suburban home and a couple of good kids. Still, he feels he’s lacking “something.” He knows not what that is, but he’s guessing it is not, as Bev keeps pressing, “what comes in a box.” (Chelsom calls Bev “a post-it kind of girl, someone who would have a meal plan for the entire week, a great manager.”) John is such a nice guy, 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.
Sad and distant, Paulina serves as inspiration (or, as Chelsom puts it, “She outwardly expresses whatever his inner angst is”). To meet her, John takes dancing lessons, keeps a secret from his family. 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: “The rumba is a vertical expression of a horizontal wish,” she says, tossing Bobbie to the floor as 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. (Chelsom offers an unusual description of Lopez’s method during one scene, where she looks troubled, puzzled, or maybe just irritated: “It’s this internal working that makes Jennifer a movie star.”)
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 poignant guy to dancing wonder. Paulina’s story is barely explained, a brief rundown offered late in the film, to situate her melancholy, not so much that you care, but enough so John has a vehicle toward his own recovery. 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).
Shall We Dance? takes a roundabout route to John’s self-fulfillment. He is surrounded not only by his quirky dance-classmates, who have their own issues (Vern is hoping to marry his very patient girl [played by Mya] and Chic is discovering something about his sexual inclinations), but also by a quirky coworker, Link (Stanley Tucci, whom Chelsom calls “commendable for his boldness, what more can I say?”). 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, Bev must endure her own weird encounter with a private detective (Richard Jenkins), whom she hires to follow John. Chelsom observes Sarandon’s particular skill in one scene with Jenkins: “It’s not what actors show you on screen that’s interesting, it’s what they’re hiding from you,” and he’s right on — she is all about digging into pain or anxiousness and then repressing it so you have to figure out her character’s trajectory. 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.” As Chelsom puts it, “I like the misfitism of the characters in this film.” If only this had been put to more detailed use than sketching “eccentrics.” 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.