It’s remarkable how much Peter Chelsom’s Hollywood adaptation of Masayuki Suo’s wonderful 1996 Japanese movie “Shall We Dance?” owes to the original. So many of the scenes and situations and so much of the dialogue come directly from the earlier film that in many respects the new picture seems more a transliteration than a translation.
And yet the changes that have been made by writer Audrey Wells, though relatively modest, alter the tone and emphasis of the story, about a guy caught in the corporate grind who finds release and new enthusiasm for life by taking dance classes, in unfortunate ways. One is what might be called the sitcomization of the narrative in numerous areas. Consider the characterization of the two fellows who join lessons along with John Clark (Richard Gere, virtually reprising his “Unfaithful” role without the melodrama), the unsatisfied lawyer; in the Japanese original Yu Tokui’s Hattori and Hiromasa Taguchi’s Tanaka were certainly humorous, but they’re more stereotypical in this version, even if they’re well-played by Bobby Cannavale (as Chic, the macho one with a sentimental streak) and Omar Miller (as Vern, the chubby maladroit). Similarly, there’s the increased sentimentalization of the figure of Clark’s co-worker Link, Aoki (the delicious Naoto Takenata) in the original, played here by Stanley Tucci. The actor is good, as usual, but the character loses something in the cross-Pacific transit; notice, for example, the italicized moment added to the scene near the end when Link is ridiculed by his office colleagues. A like heightening occurs in the character of the PI that Clark’s wife hires to find out what her husband’s up to. In the original, he’s a rather dour, helpful sort with a straightlaced young assistant; now he’s a gruffer, more jovial type, heavy on the lowbrow, and his aide is a fast-talking African-American. Still, they too are expertly played, by Richard Jenkins and Nick Cannon, respectively. One might also question why Clark and his wife are provided with a son as well as the daughter found in the Japanese film. Stark Sands is amiable enough in the part (as is Tamara Hope as his sister), but his presence is extraneous, and the script seems to agree when, near the close, in the scene when mother and daughter come to Clark’s contest big appearance with his partner Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter, who creates a character outsized as that in the original), he doesn’t appear at all. It’s as though Wells suddenly forgot she had added him to the family.
But all these details are small potatoes beside the major shift of emphasis the change of cultures demands. Suo’s script was predicated on the Japanese aversion to shows of intimacy in public even between husband and wife, and the way in which the protagonist was breaking a virtual taboo by secretively dancing with a woman–his beautiful, troubled teacher. Relocated to Chicago (impersonated, apart from a few establishing shots, by Winnipeg), that whole subtext necessarily vanishes, and the only option Wells is left with is to turn the script into a mid-life crisis story that’s terribly pallid and conventional by comparison (as well as emphasizing the potentially unsavory undercurrent of marital infidelity). She also necessarily expands the wife’s side of the story, amplifying it to justify the presence of someone like Susan Sarandon in the role (with a result in the last reel that turns that character into a curiously shrill woman and, by concentrating on the reconciliation of the couple, dilutes the magic of the last dance).
Still, despite all this, Chelsom’s version of “Shall We Dance?” is a reasonably diverting piece, even if it’s a distant also-ran to the charming Japanese original. Gere doesn’t manage to catch the pathos of his role in the way that Koji Yakusho did–he comes across as more obtuse than struggling to express himself–but he improves as Clark loosens up a bit, and he looks natty and dances well. And although Sarandon never gets a clear bead on John’s wife Paulina, Jennifer Lopez is surprisingly effective as the ethereal dance instructor, even if she can’t match the quietly simmering beauty of Tamiyo Kusakari’s prototype. And the supporting cast–including Anita Gillette, who almost seems Gwen Verdon reborn as Mitzi, the owner of the dance studio–is, whatever questions one might have about the characters they play, engaging (with Cannavale and Jenkins special crowd-pleasers). Chelsom arranges everything with considerable flair, and the production is very attractive. Carolina Hanania’s production design, John de Borman’s cinematography, Sue Chan’s art direction and Sophie de Rakoff’s costumes are all top-drawer.
So while “Shall We Dance?” will probably disappoint those who so enjoyed its Japanese predecessor, audiences looking for sweetly old-fashioned entertainment–especially older viewers–should appreciate this cinematic spin around a well-trod dance floor, despite the periodic stumbles. (If you were among those who embraced “De-Lovely,” for example, this should also appeal to you.) And perhaps seeing it will encourage some to look up Suo’s superior original. Any picture that does that can’t be all bad.