In 1997, a charming little Japanese movie made its way into American theaters. Set in modern Japan, Shall We Dance? looked at a handful of men who signed up for ballroom dancing lessons, in spite of a cultural taboo against men dancing in public. The joy of movement was enough for these men to overcome the shame of being seen as dancers.
In 2004, you can now see the American version of the same film. We don’t have the same cultural taboo, and this film’s budget dwarfs that of the Japanese original, so the film is necessarily different. But the underlying plot is the same, and the comic sweetness is the same.
Dance, Boy, Dance
PG-13 for language, sexual references
Richard Gere plays John Clark, a successful lawyer who one day looks up from the subway at a forlorn face (Jennifer Lopez) looking out of a dance studio window. John decides on a whim to look at this woman more closely, and he ends up signing up for lessons. Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife (Susan Sarandon).
Also in John’s beginners class are Verne (Omar Miller) and Chic (Bobby Cannavale), the film’s comic relief. John also spots the office jock Link (Stanley Tucci), incognito, doing a racy Latin rhumba.
Eventually Paulina (Lopez) notices John’s constant stares, and she confronts him. Don’t come back to class if you’re coming for me, she says. There is nothing else for John to do except return to class and focus on the dancing.
Lost in Translation
Inevitably this film will be compared to its predecessor, and it simply can’t win. The original sentiment gets lost in translation from Japanese to American. It’s also diluted by the Hollywood conformity index, that says the more money risked on a movie, the less original the movie is allowed to be. So immediately, the film is doomed to paying homage to its predecessor, at best.
But the dancing doesn’t seem as good in this film, either. To their credit, the whole cast dances their own parts. And they are good. But watching the Japanese film, you say “wow, these people are actually pretty good.” In this film you say “these guys are showing off and trying to be funny.” In particular, Tucci’s character seems more hammy and less eccentric than his Japanese counterpart.
Although I would recommend seeing the Japanese original instead of this one, there are people for whom subtitles are a turn-off. (A friend called an hour ago to say he might not come to our “movie night” this month because the film has subtitles.) For that crowd, I would recommend the new Shall We Dance. And I wouldn’t steer anyone away from seeing it who was inclined to do so. This film is sweet and entertaining and likely to be enjoyed by its audience.
But if it’s an either/or proposition — the original or the remake — the decision is clear.