Given the flood of syrupy comedy-dramas that have been cascading from England over the last decade or so, it’s rather shocking to hear the characters in Randall Miller’s picture speaking with an American accent (though star Robert Carlyle can’t completely conceal his origin). “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” tries to emulate the formula of schmaltz and eccentricity that’s served the Brits so well–at least financially–but winds up seeming the sort of cloying, sentimental heart-tugger that would be more at home on network television than the big screen.
Carlyle is at the center of things as Frank, a baker grieving over the suicide of his wife. While driving his delivery truck one morning, he comes upon a car that’s crashed, and rushes to help the seriously injured driver, Steve (John Goodman). Instructed to keep Steve talking until help arrives (and then while the man’s taken to the hospital), Frank learns that the fellow was on his way to the titular establishment to keep a date made long ago, with a girl he’d danced with during an idyllic summer many years before, and agrees to go there in his place. He doesn’t find Steve’s dream woman there, but he’s wakened from his sadness by the dancing presided over by the dead Hotchkiss’ daughter Marianne (Mary Steenburgen), and eventually finds a new love in Meredith (Marisa Tomei), a shy young woman who’s pushed around by her cocky stepbrother Randall (Donnie Wahlberg) but blossoms under Frank’s embarrassed gaze.
Folded into this narrative is the tale of young Steve’s (Elden Henson) infatuation with his eight-year old dance partner–footage taken from a short made by Miller a decade and a half ago. And attention is also paid to the grief therapy group that Frank participates in, peopled by other widowers played by the likes of Sean Astin, David Paymer, Adam Arkin and Miguel Sandoval. The fact that they eventually find their way to the dance classes too should come as no surprise.
In fact, nothing that happens in “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” comes as a surprise, despite the fractured form that the writer-director has given to the script, which shuffles together Frank’s story with that of young Steve and lots of pre-flashback reminiscences by the considerably grown Steve. The intent is to meld a charming tale of puppy love with a grown-up narrative about getting over loss–an odd mixture of deep nostalgia with a lesson about moving on–but the drearily deliberate pacing, as well as the mawkishness that infects both the childhood and the contemporary material, give the movie an almost sickeningly sweet flavor.
By and large the starry cast fares poorly, too. Carlyle is solemn throughout, his pallid hangdog expression being a sign of his sorrow, and Goodman milks a sappy role for all it’s worth. Steenburgen and Tomei are better, though both are somewhat affected, and Wahlberg comes on very strong (as does Arkin). Paymer and Sandoval are both okay, if quite restrained, and Camryn Manheim does what she can with a clumsily-written closing cameo. The performances in the childhood material, dating from 1990, are rather amateurish, and though technically the movie is competently done, the visuals never generate the sort of magic hoped for.
There’s probably an audience out there for the old-fashioned sentimentality that imbues “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School.” But except for Sunday matinees, the movie will doubtlessly match up with them at home in front of their television screens rather than in theatre auditoriums.