Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm SchoolReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/03/06 17:23:37
“Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School” is a movie as overly busy as its title. This is a wildly ill-conceived jumble, and not even its impressive cast can rescue it.The film, directed by Randall Miller, is an expansion of his 1990 short film of the same title. In that movie (which I have not seen), a young boy and his ruffian friends, circa 1962, are forced by their parents to go to the titular location, where one of them reluctantly discovers the opposite sex. Footage from that film, with its washed-out, home-movie look, has been recycled for this new feature, using clips as flashbacks. Those bits look cute, if not entirely funny.
Which makes it all the greater shame that such charming storytelling would get plowed under and reworked as something remarkably idiotic. The flashbacks, you see, are provided by a gentleman (John Goodman) who is found dying following a nasty car crash; a baker named Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle) is asked by paramedics, who think they are friends, to keep him talking. It turns out the best way to postpone death is to tell a stranger about something that happened to you when you were in grade school - no matter how many scenes of the guy just about to flatline, he always revives just in time to tell us a little more about his childhood (in a perky, pleasant voice that delivers intricately detailed descriptions, a tone that doesn’t at all match with the gravelly almost-dead voice of Goodman in the ambulance, whoops).
Because this is not enough, we discover that the guy was on his way to meet a childhood sweetheart, someone named Lisa, whom he agreed back in the Kennedy years to meet on May 5, 2005 at the Hotchkiss School. I am willing to concede that perhaps this man did in fact live his entire life waiting anxiously for this date to roll around again so he could see someone he hadn’t seen in four decades, and I am willing to concede that perhaps Frank would want to go to the school to find Lisa and tell her that the guy’s not coming after all. What I refuse to concede is that all of this is not the premise of the movie, but merely the starting point for an entirely different story, one involving Frank and how he’s dealing with the suicide of his wife.
See what I mean by busy? And Miller (who co-wrote the screenplay with his production partner, Jody Savin), wanting this movie to be about both Goodman and Carlyle’s characters, tosses us flashbacks within flashbacks - we go from present day Hotchkiss School stuff to the confessions-in-an-ambulance stuff to the 1962 stuff, and back and forth over and over and over again. This is a movie in desperate need of a major streamlining.
The present-day bits follow Frank as he’s introduced to this lovely world of formal dancing (it’s all very “Shall We Dance?”), where he meets an assortment of oddballs, falls in love with Meredith (Marisa Tomei), has to deal with the jerkish Randall (Donnie Wahlberg), and begins to get over his wife’s death. (Cluttering up things even more: Frank eventually brings his encounter group with him, meaning we get not one but an entire room full of widowers learning to move on thanks to the power of dance!)
“Oddballs” is the key word, as Miller isn’t content with merely giving us people - he has to give us characters. Meredith isn’t merely a lovely-if-shy woman; she also has a prosthetic leg and gets beaten up by her stepbrother. Kip (Sean Astin) isn’t merely Frank’s widower friend; he’s a nutcase who thinks his dead wife is haunting him by making the house smell bad, and hey, he’ll cover the whole floor with an inch of baking soda if he has to, because it’s so kooky! That sort of thing.
Even the whole guy-with-an-appointment is way too overcooked. Just having him have fond memories of the place is enough. Why bother with all this long-lost love baggage? More importantly, we get two major plot turns late in the film that act as clumsy punchlines to this whole mess, but why bother with that, either? Not only does this become too much story, but all that forced cleverness from the screenplay ultimately negates the whole Goodman storyline.
In addition to Goodman, Carlyle, Tomei, Wahlberg, and Astin, we also get to see Mary Steenburgen, Danny DeVito, David Paymer, Adam Arkin, Sonia Braga, Elden Henson (cleverly playing a double role, as he also appeared in the short film as a child), Ernie Hudson, and Miguel Sandoval. This is a whole lot of cast, and it’s easy to look at this line-up, then look at the muddled story, and see why this film would be such a disappointment. For all its star power, nobody really gets to do anything here. Carlyle gets a few moments as a griever, Goodman gets a few moments as a regretful dying man, and Steenburgen gets a few moments as the sophisticate in charge of the school. But that’s it. All the characters are so broad and generic here that the cast is reduced to shallow quirks.I’m sure there could have been something good to come out of a single storyline, but cramming so much at once into a single film leaves all of the plotlines underdeveloped and uninspired. Miller confuses eccentricity with characterization, clutter with depth. “Hotchkiss” is a movie that’s so busy getting everything going at once that it never stops to see if anything is working. Following a career overloaded with dopey, slight comedies (“Class Act,” “The Sixth Man,” “Houseguest” - and those are the better ones), this one feels like Miller’s attempt at a change for the seriousness. Sadly, he fails on so many levels, and all he delivers is little more than an empty, forced feel-gooder that’s a lot less moving than it believes it is.
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