Shall We Dance?

We continue the latest season of the beloved but critically-overlooked Ten Movies podcast, this time with our appraisal of the films of Jennifer Lopez, who is also beloved but critically-overlooked. Today’s episode: ‘Shall We Dance?’, a light 2004 ballroom-dancing movie with stakes so low as to be practically nonexistent. Brian found this maddening, while Hemal found it refreshing. Controversy! It’s good for sales and it’s good for podcast episodes.

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First things first. Despite what is strongly suggested by the film’s marketing, Jennifer Lopez is not a major part of the film. She plays a mysterious, beautiful, brooding ballroom dance instructor whose mystery, beauty and broodingness draws Richard Gere into the studio, where he learns that ballroom dancing was the missing ingredient in his comfortable, professional-class life.

Unlike ‘Maid in Manhattan‘, where the befuddled male lead inexplicably throws his whole life into the garbage can over his love of the hot maid, Richard Gere just kind of has a mild crush, which dissipates. Jennifer Lopez’s character is not so much a person as she is a landmark by which he – and other characters – orient themselves.

It is not the absence of Jennifer Lopez that divided us, however, but the aforementioned dissipation. In Hemal’s reading, ‘Shall We Dance?’ is sophisticated and interesting (by romantic comedy standards), framing attraction between men and women not as life-defining events, but as ephemeral. Richard Gere is kind of into the mysterious, beautiful, brooding dancer, but she’s not into him, and that’s not a big deal. In fact, it leads him to something more valuable – a new sense of purpose and community with lovable ballroom-dancing misfits.

This theme is reinforced by other relationships, including a rumpled private eye that Susan Sarandon (Richard Gere’s wife) hires to figure out if he’s having an affair. The guy a) quickly confirms that he’s not; and b) seems kind of into Susan Sarandon himself. The film avoids melodrama or contrived suspense by having the wife character learn early on that her husband is not cheating on her, he’s just pursuing a quirky new hobby in secret. It never feels like this marriage is in any real danger – they’re just working through something a little murky.

In Brian’s reading, on the other hand, okay, sure, all of that, but the movie keeps everything a secret from the audience. The film is so understated and restrained that it’s hard to know why the characters are doing what they’re doing or why we ought to care. Both Richard Gere’s and Jennifer Lopez’s characters have motivations driving their actions, but we don’t really learn them until the final 10-15 minutes, after which you can go back and say “Oh, so THAT’S why she was so frosty!”, assuming you still care at that point.

So, you know, a mixed review from the Ten Movies team, but we did heartily agree that this was a welcome change from to the last two films we watched – the bafflingly-incoherent ‘Gigli’ and the unwatchably-barbarous ‘U Turn’. Point is, your own viewing experience of ‘Shall We Dance?’ will be made immeasurably richer by our efforts, and isn’t that why we’re here?

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