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MOVIE REVIEW

Gere embraces showy side in lively 'Dance'

James Brown is often touted as the hardest-working man in show business, which always feels a little unfair. What about the boom operators, the stagehands, or the Teamsters? What about Richard Gere?

To you and me, it may seem like the guy's had it pretty easy. But he's spent his whole career trying to be taken seriously and the past 15 years of it looking really pained, as though the best way to earn respectability is to squint really hard, when we all know it's to say no to "Red Corner" and "The Mothman Prophecies."

Lately, though, Gere seems happy to be alive. In "Chicago," he made a sleazy joke of his characteristic smugness. He sang, danced, and let Renee Zellweger sit on his lap, too. He had finally come out of the closet as a showman. "Shall We Dance?," which opens today, finds Gere still light-footed and loving it. He plays the imaginatively named John Clark, a Chicago businessman who, for reasons he doesn't initially understand, enrolls in a ballroom-dance class.

The movie is an unnecessary Hollywood overhaul of the warm, fuzzy Japanese film that was a pretty big hit over here in 1997. But Gere is a pleasure, smiling and spinning and high-fiving his two classmates -- played by Bobby Cannavale and Omar Miller -- and the movie is happy and extremely likable.

John has been working the same job for decades. He and his wife (a radiant Susan Sarandon) have made a lovely home and raised their 2.5 kids, but around the time of his latest birthday, he has a very mild, very discreet crisis that seems to be solved by secretly learning the tango and the cha-cha every Wednesday night. It must help that Jennifer Lopez plays one of the instructors.

Peter Chelsom directs "Shall We Dance?," which was adapted by Audrey Wells ("Under the Tuscan Sun") to please a crowd, and he keeps the nondance moments mostly uncluttered. Wells has a sneakily sophisticated knack for balancing maturity and exuberance. You're allowed to see how two long-married people start to become invisible to each other after so many years without falling out of love. After all these years, the middle-age dog just wants to learn a new trick.

Eventually, the couple's teenage daughter notices that her father is acting weird and informs her mother, who hires a private investigator (Richard Jenkins) to spy on him. Nobody said the movie isn't a little silly, but it's basically an invitation to watch a bunch of movie stars mingle with character actors and enjoy it. Everybody seems to have had a sip of whatever Gere is having, although Lopez could have used a little more.

Lopez frequently seems caught between her waxen likeness in Madame Tussauds and a truly sad woman. It's as if by holding back and being sweet and classy, she's doing us a favor. This is the sort of restraint you wish you could see from her off-screen. But in all fairness, Lopez does give her ego a break. She's so demure and underused you almost forget she's there, except that, like the great bombshells before her, she does glow, but only modestly.

Just about everybody else in "Shall We Dance?" is showy, as if they can't believe they're getting paid for this. (Lopez just seems grateful.) Anita Gillette is wonderful as wistful Miss Mitzi. So are the slyly sexy Jenkins and Lisa Ann Walter, as a brassy dancer. She's like a less polished Bette Midler.

Then there's Stanley Tucci, playing a co-worker of John's, who annoyingly has to disguise himself as a flamboyant Latino to really cut loose as a dancer. The worry among his peers is that he might be gay -- that's actually the entire worry in "Shall We Dance?": that men who dance are less than men, that there's shame in exuberance. This is nonsense, obviously. And Gere, after years of seeming locked inside himself, finally seems ready to promote the idea that any star who fears show ought to find a new business.

Shall We Dance?
***

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