But Peter Chelsom, who made such wonderful movies as 1991's Hear My Song and 1995's Funny Bones -- before Town & Country and Serendipity rendered him a seemingly hopeless footnote -- shines in the brightly lit dance studio where Richard Gere winds up after being seduced by the image of Jennifer Lopez leaning longingly in the joint's window frame. Chelsom, a former actor who began his career by appearing in quality BBC productions of Dennis Potter teleplays, is sentimental at heart, but not a drip by any measure. Shall We Dance? marks a return, in many ways, to Chelsom's earliest and best films, which were set in the present but felt very much like vestiges of a black-and-white past and wore smiles that barely concealed the sadness coursing through them.
In Hear My Song and Funny Bones, both set in the director's hometown of Blackpool, England, half-empty men stared longingly into the distance in search of the unnamable, unknowable something or someone that would complete them. Here, it's Gere who does the staring -- out the window of an elevated train that shleps him to his law office every day; there, he writes wills for people wrapping up their affairs and waiting to die. Gere's John Clark appears to have it all: a charming wife (Susan Sarandon, as down-to-earth here as dirt itself), two teenage children who only pretend they're ignoring their parents and a lovely home in the wooded suburbs. But he sees his family only rarely: Sarandon's Beverly is always off to a meeting, fundraiser or other function, or out shopping with the kids. Which leaves John plenty of time to be alone with his paperwork, or to be merely lonely.
Shall We Dance? takes place in Chicago, but flashes back (and forward) to a dance competition in Blackpool, where Lopez's character, a competitive dancer named Paulina, lost a contest and a partner all at once some time back. When John sees Paulina in that window one night, he's drawn to her not just because she's, well, Jennifer Lopez, but because he recognizes her blank stare as the longing look of a fellow traveler. One night he trundles up the stairs to the studio where she works and signs up for ballroom-dance classes, but he gets as his instructor the studio's owner, the flask-swigging Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), not Paulina. Joining John are Vern (Omar Miller), a sweet and overweight man who claims to be training for his wedding day, and Chic (The Station Agent's Bobby Cannavale), who fancies himself a hardworking stud who's just there to pick up the ladies who never show.
Only after several weeks, apparently, does Beverly begin to notice her husband's absence on Wednesday nights, so withdrawn into her own world has she become. Of course, she suspects an affair and hires two private detectives, Six Feet Under's Richard Jenkins and Drumline's Nick Cannon, to trail John. But he's not out cheating on his wife; the closest he comes is a late-night spin with Paulina. Shall We Dance? is, in fact, the first of two Miramax releases this fall about an unhappily married man who finds love in a platonic relationship; next month comes Finding Neverland, in which Johnny Depp's J.M. Barrie falls for Kate Winslet's Sylvia Davies, whose sons will inspire Peter Pan. So much for the company that once gave us Sex, Lies & Videotape; now there's no sex at all, just a little innocent flirting for inspiration's sake.
What's most impressive about Shall We Dance is how Chelsom wipes the glitter and glamour off his stars and makes them seem like ordinary people. Gere and Sarandon and Lopez and Stanley Tucci, as a colleague who hides his love for dance beneath a wig and false teeth, lose their luster early on; Gere, as the proverbial man in the gray flannel suit, is so withdrawn at the start of the film that he barely seems to exist. It's the antithesis of his performance in Chicago, in which he razzled and dazzled as the haughty song-and-dance lawyer; here he's tranquil and uncomfortable, internalized till his hand (or foot, actually) is forced. And Lopez is wisely used as a bit player; she plays herself, but turned down to a whisper. There's but one flaw here: Shall We Dance? runs out of breath and collapses into a heap of feel-good endings that turn a soaring feeling into a sinking one. But by then, the audience that adores it will forgive its sins; they've been spun around the floor long enough to be made dizzy with pleasure, or something close enough to it.