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Strictly Ballroom 

by Ed Symkus

This will probably be the only review of Shall We Dance? you read that doesn't compare it to the original Japanese version that was an art house hit in 1996. I didn't see the first film, so this will be a fresh take on the new, charming, Americanized one.

John (Richard Gere) is an attorney who's been writing wills for 20 years. He's bored. Bored and tired. He rides the same Chicago subway every day, deals with the same type of clients, and hardly sees his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon).

One night, he happens to glance out the window, up to the sign beckoning train riders and others to Miss Mitzi's Dancing School. But maybe it's not the sign he notices. Maybe it's Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), the beautiful woman gazing out of the school window, lost in thought, seeming to wish she was elsewhere.

But on he goes, back and forth, work and home, peck on the cheek from the wife, heat up dinner. But one night on the way home, curiosity gets the best of him. He jumps out, walks up the steps to watch the dancers -- or is it that instructor? -- and gets talked into signing up for lessons.

It's director Peter Chelsom's light touch -- on display in Hear My Song and Funny Bones, but absent in Town & amp; Country and Serendipity -- that makes Shall We Dance? fun to watch. Add to that Gere's natural charm, Stanley Tucci's outrageousness as a lawyer pal who just wants to get up and dance (in a shoulder-length wig,no less); and Anita Gillette, whose Miss Mitzi needs a little slug before yet another class. The result is a feel-good film that may even make viewers want to do what Tucci's character does (sans the wig).

Gere has never looked more unsure of himself, more uncomfortable, than as the novice dancer. This works well. Of the two guys taking lessons with him, Chick (Bobby Cannavale) is there to "pick up babes" and Vern (Omar Benson Miller) is there to learn to dance before his wedding. It's not clear why John is there. And his wife and daughter have no idea about the lessons, believing he's working late, until a few signs of possible infidelity push Beverly into hiring a private detective (Richard Jenkins, in his best comic role since Flirting With Disaster.)

It's hard to tell what's more fun, the story or its characters. Scotty (Nick Cannon) is the detective's assistant, who spouts off literary references to everyday situations. Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter) is the brash dancer who, in the only hint of clich & eacute;, probably has a heart of gold. Even Lopez stays in the background, without much to say till about an hour in, when she starts revealing something about her forlorn look. Tucci is a sight to behold. And he's a hell of a dancer.

As is Gere. Any questions about his dancing ability in Chicago -- his body was often shot showing the top half or the bottom half, so who knew if those were his feet? -- are answered here. He knows his way around a ballroom floor.

The story turns into one of a novice competition. That part is fine, although there's a point near the end where the film's lightness blinks out for a moment. That feels out of place and is the only gaffe in the script. But the movie soon gets back up on its feet -- and happily dances to the finish.

Publication date: 10/14/04

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