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 seemingly hopeless, shines in the bright 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 is a sentimentalist at heart, but he's not a drip, and Shall We Dance? marks a return to his earliest and best films, which were set in the present but felt like vestiges of a black-and-white past in which smiles 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 into the distance in search of the unnamable, unknowable something (or someone) that would complete them. Here, it's Gere who stares out the window of an elevated train that schleps him every day to and from his law office. 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 Sarandon's Beverly is always off to a meeting, a fund-raiser or some other function. Which leaves John plenty of time alone with his paperwork.
Shall We Dance? takes place in Chicago but flashes back to a dance competition in Blackpool where Lopez's character, a dancer named Paulina, lost both a contest and a partner. 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 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 just there to pick up the ladies who never show.
Of course, Beverly suspects an affair and hires two private detectives, Six Feet Under's Richard Jenkins and Drumline's Nick Cannon, to trail him. But John's not out cheating on his wife; the closest he comes is a late-night spin with Paulina. So much for the company that once gave us Sex, Lies & Videotape. Now there's no sex at all, just a little innocent, inspirational flirting.
What's most impressive about Shall We Dance? is how Chelsom wipes the glitter off his stars and makes them seem like ordinary people. Gere is so withdrawn early on 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 until his hand (or feet, actually) is forced. And Lopez is wisely used as a bit player; she plays herself, turned down to a whisper. Shall We Dance? runs out of breath and collapses in a heap of feel-good endings that turn a soaring feeling into a sinking one. But by then, the audience will forgive its sins; they've been spun around the floor long enough to be made dizzy with pleasure, or something close to it.