Thursday, April 27, 2006

NO PARKING ON THE DANCE FLOOR

Posted on Thu, Apr 27, 2006 at 4:00 AM

*1/2
Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Marisa Tomei, Robert Carlyle, John Goodman, Sean Astin, Mary Steenburgen
Director: Randall M. Miller
Screenwriter: Randall M. Miller, Jody Savin
WorkNameSort: Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School
Our Rating: 1.50

The movies sure have a funny idea of what it means to be in a car accident. Remember Don Cheadle in the opening frames of Crash, responding to a multivehicular pile-up with an extemporaneous, poetic musing on the traffic jam of human alienation that is life in modern-day Los Angeles?

Having been in a few wrecks in my life ' most spectacularly as a passenger in a car that drove under a truck ' I can tell you that florid oratory isn't a survivor's first instinct. If you're able to say anything at all, it's going to be along the lines of, 'Ouch ouch OUCH!!!â?� Or, 'Mother of 12 bastards, I almost DIED!â?� Real minimalist stuff.

Yet here's John Goodman in Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, racking up his Volvo on some lonely highway and immediately adjudging it the perfect opportunity to dish up juicy backstory. Blood pours from his head and a fellow motorist (Robert Carlyle) looks/listens in dismayed fascination as Goodman's Steve Mills seizes the moment to â?¦ wax nostalgic about the early 1960s. In detail.

He was but a wee lad at the time, Steve recalls. The Cold War was in full swing. And forced enrollment in dancing school changed his life forever. (Meanwhile, didn't a young Joe Piscopo make us laugh? No, that's Marge Simpson on the '80s.)

On goes the cloying bio, continuing through the arrival of paramedics and providing a springboard into flashbacks that brand Hotchkiss as a grade-A load of hooey. Not content to tell two lousy, maudlin stories at once, the movie goes for a full three. In between visits back to those halcyon days of Camelot ' wherein the young Steve (Elden Henson) meets his first love while memorizing the lessons of genteel social intercourse ' the film keeps shuttling us into the immediate future, as Carlyle's Frank Keane fulfills a stretcher-side promise to stand in for Steve at an all-important rendezvous. It seems that Steve and his long-lost sweetie had an agreement to meet on May 5, 2005, at one of the ballroom-comportment classes that were such a vital part of their youth. But when Frank gets there, he doesn't find the vaunted 'Lisaâ?� ' just a group of loony

lonelyhearts presided over by an etiquette-obsessed dance mistress (Mary Steenburgen, parceling out her lines in a spacey drawl that makes Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein sound tethered).

There's a predatory Latin temptress (Sonia Braga). And a cowed, one-legged waif (Marisa Tomei). And her angry brother (Donnie Wahlberg), who takes his movement and wardrobe cues from Riverdance. Not that Frank is any model of adjustment himself: A mopey widower, he's part of an all-male survivors' support group (participants are played by Sean Astin, David Paymer and Ernie 'the black Ghostbusterâ?� Hudson). When he isn't joining in their fruitless grief sessions, Frank is hanging around the dance school, cajoling Tomei's mousy Meredith into opening up about the alarming bruises she's been sporting.

It's all unbelievably depressing, and a bizarre fit with the forced whimsy of the interwoven flashback sequences, which show the young Steve and his pals slowly tumbling to the visceral appeal of girls while narrator Goodman does his damndest to sound like Jean Shepherd on the voice-over track. Filmmaker Randall Miller, having assembled a dream cast of character actors, gives them nothing to do except play one-note basket cases ' excuse me, the one-note basket cases of two eras. Car wreck, anyone?

(Opens Friday, April 28, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20, 407-628-0035)

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