"The lesser dance-solves-all-problems movie for this week"
“Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School” is the second film to arrive this week to suggest that all of life’s problems can be instantly solved with a fox-trot or two. It is just as cheesy and corny as “Take the Lead” but the difference is that “Take the Lead” knows that it is cheesy and corny and tackles its familiar material with humor and good cheer. This one, on the other hand, thinks that it is making a serious and touching statement amidst all of its whimsy and the results are more cloying than moving.An expansion of an Oscar-nominated 1990 short, the film stars Robert Carlyle as a depressed widower who comes across a dying car-crash victim (John Goodman) who insists that he must get to the titular location for a rendevous he vowed to make four decades earlier. In a series of flashbacks scattered throughout the film, the Goodman character tells about being enrolled in the school as a young boy forty-odd years earlier and the circumstances that led to him making the vow to return to the place after all those years. For his part, Carlyle promises the dying man that he will go in his place to find the girl he was supposed to meet. She doesn’t turn up but Carlyle finds himself embroiled in the lives of a few of the current students, chiefly a bruised beauty (Marisa Tomei) and her violent and hot-headed step-brother (Donnie Wahlberg), before a finale in which everyone involved learns how to come to terms with things and move on into the future.
The film is sweet-natured enough and I liked a couple of the performances (especially Mary Steenburgen as the daughter of the school’s late owner who is carrying on the family traditions) as well as the home-movie style that the flashbacks have been shot in, but it is so relentlessly in its efforts to tug at the audience’s heartstrings that it quickly begins to wear out its welcome. It isn’t enough that Carlyle’s wife is dead–she has to be an unexplained suicide. It isn’t enough that Tomei is clearly someone’s punching bag–she has to be missing a leg to boot. It isn’t enough when we discover that the guy hitting her is Wahlberg–we get to learn that he remains so upset and ashamed from failing to protect his step-sister from his father as a child that the only thing he can do to come to terms with it today is to beat the crap out of her and anyone who comes close to her. It isn’t enough that Goodman’s one true love doesn’t make it that fatal night–well, I won’t ruin that for you but I will gently suggest that between the car accident or what might have happened had they met, he was probably better off with the accident and his ideals. Luckily for all, nearly all of these searing emotional traumas can be cured with the liberal application of the Lindy hop.I never saw the original version of “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School” but I can sort of see how it might have worked as a short subject. Stretched to 100 minutes and filled with extraneous subplots (the most egregious being the one involving Carlyle’s therapy group of widowers, each of whom miraculously finds happiness on the dance floor in the final scenes. If you see only one film this weekend extolling the virtues of dance as a solution to the grind of everyday living, make it “Take the Lead.” If you can see two of them, you’ll be better off watching “Take the Lead” a second time.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.