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Shall We Dance? (2004)

One probably could describe 2004's Shall We Dance? — accurately — as "smooth-jazz filmmaking." This tale of a bored lawyer (Richard Gere) who re-ignites his passion via the miracle of ballroom dance is one of those light, adult-contemporary comedies where no one's ever in any real danger and everyone (even the poor) exhibits charming quirks while enjoying the trappings of an upper-middle-class lifestyle. The soundtrack's packed with easy-listening pop variations on older, more aggressive Latin dance music, and gentle homilies about the wonders of family and friendship serve as the film's morals. Done badly, this sort of movie can end up being barely-evolved, fizzy dreck (cf. Woman on Top). But Shall We Dance? — a surprisingly faithful remake of the sweet 1996 Japanese film — is bolstered by smart personnel, both behind and in front of the camera. It's an intelligent, funny, mature comedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve and makes us care about the inner lives of ridiculously privileged human beings. It also marks the return of Jennifer Lopez to the ranks of well-employed actresses. Thanks to a heap of celebrity-diva baggage, it's easy to forget that at one time she was an exciting, sexy new screen presence, and positively volcanic in 1998's Out of Sight. On that count, Shall We Dance? is a welcome bit of career rehab — she's wonderfully restrained in her supporting role as a brokenhearted, remote dance instructor who only lets her sensuality out on the dance floor. Director Peter Chelsom lets her appeal sneak out like puffs of kettle steam — until she enjoys a late-night dance lesson with Gere that would probably qualify as adultery if we didn't know that Gere's character loved his wife (Susan Sarandon) so much. (Gere's honest, surprised laugh at the end of this scene is one of the movie's best moments.)

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Of course, ballroom dancing is one of those great, easy cinematic metaphors: There's the inherent irony of unleashing your sensuality through rigid discipline (a theme that was hammered home much harder in the Japanese version), and there are the obvious correlations to sex and love and emotional freedom. Gere signs up for ballroom-dance lessons — unbeknownst to a befuddled Sarandon — because he's smitten with the image of Lopez gazing forlornly out of the dance-studio window he passes on the L Train every evening. But his character soon realizes he loves dancing and his wife, not Lopez — and the movie's thrust is that Gere gently integrates the lessons of the ballroom into the rest of his life. As he tearfully confesses late in the film, "I was ashamed of wanting to be happy when we have so much"; it's a quieter, more mature, and frankly more interesting dilemma than a simple attraction to Lopez. But what really makes the film work is its strong supporting cast. Stanley Tucci is a riot as Gere's co-worker — a man leading a secret life as a bewigged dance aficionado trapped in his own private Strictly Ballroom. Lisa Ann Walter is a big-mouthed, big-assed, curvy trash goddess as a blue-collar townie who tears her fellow students to shreds. And Sarandon is wonderfully fragile as Gere's wife — particularly in her scenes with the eccentric private investigator (Richard Jenkins) she hires to find out why her husband comes home late on Wednesday nights. Pay special attention to the scene where she gives a fairly boilerplate speech about what marriage means to her that ends, quietly and surprisingly, with her in tears. It's a wonderful moment, and it exemplifies how everyone's bringing a little more to the production than the script requires.

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Buena Vista's Shall We Dance? DVD looks and sounds fine with a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in English and French, as well as an array of subtitles. The extras are the sort of, well, adult-contemporary extras (read: barely reprocessed EPK kits) that one comes to expect on a release like this. There's an amiable commentary with director Peter Chelsom that's polite, dry, and informative. "Beginners' Ballroom" (6 min.) is a sort of "Dummies" guide to the art form, with behind-the-scenes footage of the actors dishing on how insanely hard it was to learn their dance moves. There's also a "Behind the Scenes" featurette (23 min.); a baldly promotional "Music of Shall We Dance?" doc that tries desperately to get excited about the film's soundtrack (3 min.); the Pussycat Dolls' "Sway" music video (3 min.); and five alternate and deleted scenes with optional commentary by Chelsom. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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