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Dangerous rhythm: (l-r) Lopez and Gere in Shall We Dance?

Fancy Free
By Laura Leon

Shall We Dance?
Directed by Peter Chelsom

What seemed a very strange remake, Shall We Dance? bears the unique prestige of being more its own picture than a by-the-dots reissue of its predecessor, in this case the enchanting Japanese film of the same name by Masayuki Suo. It’s still about an executive who, haunted by some inexplicable yearning, takes up ballroom dancing without family or business associates knowing it. But whereas the first movie made hay with the intricate nuances of Japanese society and sexual roles, this newer, Americanized film plays the story very generically.

It would be next to impossible for director Peter Chelsom to copy Suo’s story, if only for the fact that the same taboos that beset his hero simply don’t exist in the U.S. of A. So it’s not a big surprise to see that much of the humor driving this version relates to confusion over one’s sexual preference or predilections. In the case of protagonist John Clark (Richard Gere), one of the more macho ballroom dancers assumes that he is gay. Ha ha. In the case of John’s wife, Bev (Susan Sarandon), she wonders if his newfound happiness is the afterglow of a midlife affair.

Getting second billing is Jennifer Lopez, who plays dance instructor Paulina, whose hauntingly fragile figure, seen from the El train by John on his evening commute, compels Clark to, literally, take a leap of faith. Lopez really looks the part, but is given nothing much to do other than look like she’s about to cry any minute—that is, when she isn’t crying. There is a hint of steam from a nice dance sequence between Paulina and John, but their romance is more a philosophical thing, with nary a chance of impeding on the Clarks’ tranquil domesticity.

What works better are the highly enjoyable dance sequences, be they the lessons, taught by Paulina or the formidable Miss Mitzi (a thoroughly delightful Anita Gillette), or, later, the obligatory “big competition.” Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter) is an obnoxious blue-collar gal with a penchant for flashy costumes and some real talent. Link (Stanley Tucci) is, by day, John’s jock coworker, but, under cover of night, some poorly applied self-tanner and a wig, he is the lord of the cha cha. There’s also the gigantic Vern (Omar Miller) and the aforementioned macho guy Chic (Bobby Cannavale). While the competition bears none of the suspense and beauty of the original, it does give off a wholesome, “go team” type of quality.

Crammed into all this action is a delightful subplot, in which Bev hires a private investigator (Richard Jenkins), who betrays his own romanticism by falling first for his client and then for—you guessed it—ballroom dancing. (By the way, Jenkins has the best desk lunch scene since Walter Matthau in Charade.) Sarandon, somehow, brings the focus back to a refreshing bit of reality, in the way her anger and hurt are clearly more about John’s secrecy than about his chosen hobby. And the scene in which John finally comes clean about why he kept mum for so long conveys more honesty about why couples keep things from each other than stuff I’ve seen in far better movies. Ultimately, Shall We Dance?’s best moves are those that evoke the beauty of movement. Gere clearly has a grand time hoofing it, and Lopez, toward the end, shows off just how she got those taut ab muscles. Best of all, however, is when Mitzi and her students, trudging homeward, stop, entranced by a television store window in which all the boxes are playing Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing in The Band Wagon. The images of the two stars sauntering, plieing, vamping and what have you washes over the starstruck visages of the gang, and in one brief moment, you clearly understand the answer to the title question.

Taken for a Ride

The Motorcycle Diaries
Directed by Walter Salles

In 1952, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a medical student, and his older friend, Alberto Granada, a biochemist, set off from Rosario, Argentina, to travel the length and breadth of South America. Their trusty steed was a dilapidated motorcycle they christened “the Mighty One.” In an act of both altruism and resume building, they signed on as volunteers at a leper colony for the last leg of their journey. Their months-long road trip, which both men published books about, is given far greater resonance by the fact that Ernesto, 23, was shortly to become the iconic revolutionary Ché Guevara.

The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles (Central Station) is an overly picaresque and ultimately shallow presentation of Guevara (Gael García Bernal) as a sensitive young man, one not so different from many others from loving, middle-class families. According to this beautifully filmed travelogue, it’s the events on the long and winding road to the sanitarium that planted the seeds of socialist insurrection in Ernesto’s gentle heart. His friend Alberto (Rodrigo De la Serna) is merely the comic foil, a vulgar rogue who fancies himself a romantic conquistador. Never mind that Guevara was already a well-traveled firebrand by the time of the trip. Under Salle’s subtly reverential treatment, we don’t see the slightest personality trait that might foretell of Ché, the brilliant guerrilla-war tactician and Castro’s right-hand executioner. This Ernesto is nearly beatific in his tenderness, and Bernal doesn’t bring anything more to the role than his delicate charisma. It’s Alberto, played with earthy gusto by Argentinean TV actor De la Serna, who is the more fully realized character. Despite his scam artistry, we get a strong sense of Alberto’s stouthearted loyalty (Granada followed Ché to, and through, Cuba).

Salles’ leisurely adaptation of their high adventure includes a few talismanic events in between magnificent shots of the untamed terrain and various run-ins with the locals. As soon as they cross the border, Ernesto is dumped by his wealthy girlfriend (through disinclination and coincidence, he remains chaste for the whole trip). After the Mighty One bites the dust, the men experience hunger and exposure and are reduced to wheedling for food and shelter. They’re also brought into contact with the oppression of the continent’s indigenous people. In Peru, they share a campfire with a farming couple who were forced off their land. The next day, the two men watch in anger as disenfranchised natives are herded onto a truck to work in the mines.

If there were more such encounters, perhaps the audience could steep in the same realizations that Ernesto and Alberto do. But after reveling in the ordinary, Salles tries to create transcendence out of Ernesto’s internship at the leper colony, where he fearlessly hugs and kisses the patients and finally gives voice to his idea that all the countries of South America should unite as one people—an idea that wouldn’t seem to mean much to either the lepers or the Catholic nuns who care for them.

And it may not matter to the viewer, who has been given very little to go on concerning Guevara’s beliefs, political or otherwise. In the opening narration, Ernesto refers to the 8,000-mile journey as “Two lives running parallel for a while,” which Salles captures with lyrical immediacy. Problem is, the audience is only along for the ride.

—Ann Morrow

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