Some 15 years ago, there was some buzz over a short movie that was set in 1962
and featured a story about a group of youngsters who attended weekly meetings where
they were instructed in the finer points of manners and the art of the waltz. The short film
was called
MARILYN HOTCHKISS' BALLROOM DANCING AND CHARM SCHOOL
and it was a charming period piece that featured a first kiss and the understanding that
girls might not be so bad after all. Now, all these years later, filmmaker Randall Miller
has expanded on the original film and created a story about the redemptive power of love.

This new version begins with widower baker Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle) on the road
in his delivery truck. As there aren't too many other drivers out at that time, he takes particular
notice of a car that speeds past him. Later, he comes upon the scene of a horrific accident.
After calling 911, Frank attempts to keep the injured driver (John Goodman) conscious by
asking him about his life. The man, Steve Mills, explains that he's on his way to meet his
childhood sweetheart -- they had arranged to meet on the fifth day of the fifth month of the
fifth year of the new millennium at the titular establishment, a place they both attended as
children. Realizing he won't be able to make it to the meeting, Steve begs Frank to take his
place. Reluctantly, the baker does.

The "school" is now operated by Marienne Hotchkiss (Mary Steenburgen), the
daughter of its founder who is clearly still living in the shadow of her mother.
Instead of children, she oversees a disparate group that includes several predatory
females, a couple of meek gentlemen and one alpha male (Donnie Wahlberg) who
fancies himself the best dancer in the class. Frank dances with each woman trying
to ascertain which one might be the mystery woman whom Steve was to meet, but it
soon becomes clear that the girl -- Lisa -- didn't show. Instead, though, Frank falls
for Meredith (Marissa Tomei), who is sporting a black eye.

By including the original short film as a series of flashbacks, we learn that a young
Steve (portrayed by Eldon Henson, then billed as Eldon Ratliff), had accidentally given
young Lisa a shiner, so Miller is trying to establish some parallels between the budding
romance between the youngsters and that of the adults depicted in this version.

Unfortunately, Miller has selected a somewhat awkward framework for the movie.
The time frame is jumbled, in part to provide the audience with a surprise "twist." (Don't
worry I won't spoil it.) He stretches to find commonality between the sweet little short
film and this longer, expanded version, mostly to little avail.

The popularity of ballroom dance has only grown in the last few years -- as evidenced
by the success of the documentary
MAD HOT BALLROOM and the television series
"DANCING WITH THE STARS". So perhaps the time is ripe for a feature to tap into that
vein. (The remake of
SHALL WE DANCE? apparently came too early.)

Miller has assembled an impressive cast, including a pair of Academy Award winners
but the disparate plot strands don't really fall together in an organic fashion. Instead,
the plot feels as if it has been manipulated. For instance, Frank attends grief therapy
that is filled with an oddball assortment of men (portrayed by the likes of Sean Astin,
Adam Arkin, Ernie Hudson, and Miguel Sandoval, with David Paymer as their leader).
Of course, as the film progresses, these guys gradually invade the "school," merely
to allow the actors to interact with the rest of the cast.

The film's tone veers wildly from tragedy to comedy to melodrama and unfortunately
it doesn't gel. There are some wonderful isolated moments, though, including a terrific
cameo from Camryn Manheim, and a startling moment of realization for Steenburgen's
Marienne. The main romantic scene between Carlyle and Tomei, though,  reminded me
(and not necessarily in a good way) of an encounter between Jack Nicholson
and Jessica Lange in the remake of
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.
It was also a bit disconcerting to see a grown-up Eldon Henson portraying a co-worker
of Carlyle's.

To paraphrase the Marvin Hamisch-Edward Kleban song from
A CHORUS LINE,
I'd give this film "Dance 3, Looks 7."

         

                     Rating:                           C-
                     MPAA Rating:               PG-13 for mature situations and language
                     Running time:                103 min.



                                         Viewed at Magno Review 2
Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing
and Charm School (2005)
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.