There is a prevailing notion in Hollywood that American audiences do not like to read subtitles and so it goes that non-English speaking foreign films do poorly at the U.S. box office. Admittedly, the studios are right. For the most part, foreign films make a few million dollars and fizzle out before being relegated to the home market. To attract American moviegoers to notable foreign films, studios opt instead to remake these films, thus ‘Americanizing’ them for domestic consumption. One recent example is LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a popular 2008 Swedish romantic vampire film that most of you have probably never heard of despite the film’s many critical accolades. Overture Films bought the American

rights before it was even released in theaters and hired director Matt

Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) to helm the project (the remake, renamed LET ME IN, comes out October 2010, but I urge you to see the original first). Similarly, SHALL WE DANCE was a remake of the widely acclaimed Japanese film of the same name. The original came out in 1995 and it was a hugely popular movie in Japan. For a foreign film it did pretty well in the U.S., but it was nowhere near the financial success of an American movie of its type.

Richard Gere plays a Chicago estate planning attorney whose droll existence is spent in his office drafting wills for his clients and coming home to a wife (Susan Sarandon) and kids who seem to always be doing their own thing. For all intents and purposes, life for Gere has turned into an unexciting routine that’s on autopilot. However, every night on the L-train, Gere notices a brightly lit neon sign for Miss Mitzi’s Dancing School and in the window looking out stands a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez) who always seems to be looking straight at him. After some hesitation, curiosity leads Gere to enroll in dancing classes at the dance school. There, he learns that Lopez is a world-class competitive dancer who lost her dance partner a year ago and so she’s back to teaching dance. Over the weeks, Gere begins to embrace his newly acquired skills and the dance school becomes a place where he can enjoy life again. In the meantime, his wife begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair so she hires a private investigator (Richard Jenkins) to check things out and find out what the hell is going on with her husband.
One of my very good and infinitely wise friends, Mr. Peter Reeves, made a great observation as to why the remake fails to work on the same level as the original Japanese version. The original movie is a statement on the sometimes stifling culture of Japanese society, particularly the expectations society sets for Japanese men in how they are to act. The Richard Gere role played in the original is that of a Japanese businessman who decides to take up dancing lessons. Within the context of Japanese culture, this type of activity is looked down upon for men to engage in because it flies in the face of Japanese convention. In that regard, the decisions made by the main character are shocking.

On the other hand, when you change the setting of the story to an American one, it no longer makes any sense why Gere would not tell his family that he’s taking dancing lessons. Although some may assume that a man enrolling in ballroom dance lessons may mean he’s gay, for the most part, its not considered taboo in American culture. Because of this, the premise of the story falls apart in an American setting. The filmmakers cannot adequately justify why Gere keeps his lessons secret from his family. This was a constant and glaring issue throughout the movie and it detracted from my enjoyment of it.

My mother LOVES Richard Gere. He could play a retarded midget who stares at paint drying on a wall for 2 hours and my mother would pay money to see him. Because of her obsession, I have ended up seeing the vast majority of his movies. Fortunately, he’s not a bad actor and he has made a number of very good films throughout his career. However, studios know and he knows that women like to see him in one particular type of role, which is that of a suave, sophisticated romantic charmer. He’ll take a few risks from time to time (example: CHICAGO), but he rarely veers away from this image. Here, he once again offers up what the ladies like and it really comes down to you either like him or you don’t. Unlike his past romantic roles, however, Gere can’t fall in love with his leading lady and I’m sure that presented a conundrum for the filmmakers. Foreign films don’t usually follow the American formula for romantic movies. They’re not as focused on making a product that they can sell to audiences so much as they are concerned with telling a good story. The original SHALL WE DANCE is not your conventional romantic film and the remake had to stick with the same story. Normally, you would have Gere fall in love with Jennifer Lopez and that would be the end of that. Instead, Gere has to somehow connect in an almost romantic way with Lopez without seeming unfaithful to his devoted wife. That’s a tough task, but I think the filmmakers pulled it off.

Surprisingly, I didn’t see nor hear much from J Lo. I was expecting much more screen time, but most of the time is spent with her looking suicidal and she’s either dancing by herself or staring out into space. The filmmakers were careful to not create too much of a romantic chemistry between she and Gere, but there is certainly sexual tension in a number of scenes, especially in one noteworthy dance scene that I felt was the most entertaining moment in the film (see clip below). As for Susan Sarandon, she’s not given much to work with either. She turns into a paranoid wife who for mysterious reasons never confronts her husband about her suspicions. Instead she hires a private detective to find out what her husband is up to and after she’s informed that he’s taking dancing lessons, she never brings it up with him. There is a disconnect between her fear of her husband’s infidelity and anger that he never told her, especially towards the end.

SHALL WE DANCE is a glossy big studio production that fails to capture the underlying heart of its characters. I didn’t feel like Gere’s life was that miserable and his misery is what led him to take dancing lessons. It was more like, “Oh look at that hot woman standing at the window. I think I’ll take dancing lessons to get to know her better.” The subplots involving the other dance students and Stanley Tucci’s character, who plays another lawyer taking dance lessons and who disguises himself so the people at the office won’t know, come off as sitcom-ish and clichéd. The end dance competition is surprisingly lackluster and totally devoid of suspense or excitement. Finally, the ending is neatly packaged with no loose strings left behind. I’m all for happy endings, but I can’t stand it when an ending is forced toward a resolution. If you really want to see how this movie really is, then see the original Japanese version.