But Peter Chelsom -- who made such wonderful movies as 1991's Hear My Song and 1995's Funny Bones before Town & Country and Serendipity rendered him a seemingly hopeless footnote -- shines in the brightly lit dance studio, where Richard Gere winds up after being seduced by the image of Jennifer Lopez leaning longingly in the joint's window frame. Chelsom is a sentimentalist, but not a drip by any measure. Shall We Dance? marks a return, in many ways, to Chelsom's earliest and best films, which were set in the present but felt very much like vestiges of a black-and-white past.
In Hear My Song and Funny Bones, half-empty men stared longingly into the distance in search of the unnamable, unknowable something or someone that would complete them. Here, it's Gere who does the staring -- out the window of an elevated train that shleps him every day to his law office. His John Clark appears to have it all: a charming wife (Susan Sarandon, as down-to-earth here as dirt itself), two teenage children who only pretend they're ignoring their parents, and a lovely home in the wooded suburbs. But he sees his family only rarely: Sarandon's Beverly is always off to a meeting or fund-raiser or other function, or out shopping with the kids. Which leaves John plenty of time to be alone with his paperwork or to be merely lonely.
Shall We Dance? takes place in Chicago, but flashes back (and forward) to a dance competition in England, where Lopez's character, a competitive dancer named Paulina, lost a contest and a partner all at once, some time back. When John sees Paulina in that window one night, he's drawn to her not just because she's, well, Jennifer Lopez, but because he recognizes her blank stare as the longing look of a fellow traveler. One night he trundles up the stairs to the studio where she works and signs up for ballroom-dance classes, but he gets as his instructor the studio's owner, the flask-swigging Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette), not Paulina.
Only after several weeks, apparently, does Beverly begin to notice her husband's absence on Wednesday nights, so withdrawn into her own world has she become. Of course she suspects an affair. But John's not out cheating on his wife; the closest he comes is a late-night spin with Paulina.
What's most impressive about Shall We Dance is how Chelsom wipes the glitter and glamour off his stars and makes them seem like ordinary people. Gere, as the proverbial man in the gray flannel suit, is so withdrawn that he barely seems to exist. And Lopez is wisely used as a bit player; she plays herself, but turned down to a whisper.