''Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School" is one of those crowded ensemble movies in which a bunch of sad sacks, including Donnie Wahlberg, Sonia Braga, and Marisa Tomei, take dance lessons in the hopes of Lindy Hopping their troubles away. The movie means no harm, but it's been simultaneously overwritten and underdirected by Randall Miller, who has turned his sweet 16-year-old short film into a syrupy, long-faced drama.
I wish I could say there is something pleasurable in watching John Goodman reminisce about the good old days while impaled on a steering wheel in the Volvo he's crashed on a California freeway, but I can't find what it is. The movie requires Goodman's character, Steve, to narrate the whole picture from that smoking heap and, later, from an ambulance.
The story Steve tells to a stranger (Robert Carlyle) who happens upon the accident is of his early 1960s childhood. The film faithfully flashes back (courtesy of footage from Miller's actual short film) to the days when he was a boy who liked cursing and roughing up girls. To his horror, young Steve's mom enrolls him at the titular charm school, where he falls in love with a fellow pupil. Grown-up Steve was on his way to a 40-year reunion with her when he crashed his car. In one of the final shots we find out where he's on his way from. It's preposterous.
The flashbacks to the short movie are interrupted so we can follow Carlyle's character, a bread maker named Frank who's still mourning his late wife. He shows up at the school looking for this Steve's long-lost love and winds up staying for classes, which the lovely Mary Steenburgen hovers over like a moon. Frank strikes up a thing with Tomei's character, drawing the anger of her abusive stepbrother, played by Wahlberg, who isn't half bad. ''It's complicated," she explains. No, it isn't. If she were married to the man who beats her up, it would be morally harder for Frank to have sex with her on his kneading table. This way there's no divorce necessary, just a pep talk between the men.
Amid all this, there are sequences of Frank at his widowers' support group, where even more good actors -- David Paymer, Ernie Hudson, Sean Astin, Adam Arkin -- go to waste. (How on earth is there no room in this movie for Hector Elizondo?) The craziest casting choice is to have Elden Henson, whom we see playing Steve in flashbacks to the original short, portray Frank's baking assistant in the expanded film.
It's obvious Miller really, really liked his short movie, but he probably should have heeded the advice somebody gives to poor Frank and just let go.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.