Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School

| April 18, 2006

Based on his short 1990 film of the same title, writer-director Randall Miller’s “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School” is an overly-sentimental interweaving of several stories that all take place in or around a small suburban dance class. The stories range from a young boy named Steve experiencing love for the first time in the 1950s, to Frank, a widowed baker in the present who realizes that the dance class and a certain young woman in it may be the very thing he needs to lift him from his wallowing depression.
Frank meets Steve in the moments after a horrific car accident which leaves Steve barely clinging to life. Steve was on his way to meet Lisa Gobar, the girl from Marilyn Hotchkiss’ dance class over 40 years ago, because as children the two had pledged no matter what to meet each other at the dance school on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium. Since Steve can no longer make his appointment, he sends Frank in his place, to seek out Lisa and tell her what happened. Frank has a perpetually put-upon demeanor, but his sympathy for the dying man wins him over, and he agrees.
Though Frank never finds Lisa at the dance school, he does find Meredith, and between her and the bewitching power of dance, Frank starts to snap out of the emptiness he’s inhabited ever since his wife’s suicide years before. His enthusiasm is so contagious that soon all the men from his support group become Marilyn Hotchkiss regulars, as well. Eventually all of these lonely, tortured men find solace in the class, but it is Frank’s recovery from a sad shell of a man that anchors the story.
The film boasts an impressive ensemble cast, including Robert Carlyle as the baker, Frank; Marisa Tomei as Meredith; Mary Steenburgen as the creepily poised dance instructor; Donnie Wahlberg in a particularly notable turn as a dance enthusiast with violent tendencies; and John Goodman as Steve, the grown up boy from the 1950s, who tells his story to Frank. Despite this pedigree, however, Miller’s syrupy sweet tone and apparent lack of narrative direction ultimately doom the movie to failure. Miller seems to be trying to weave his characters’ stories together in a manner somewhat akin to last year’s “Crash,” but falls short in engaging us. The constant flashbacks to the 1950s and the lack of substantial character development for Meredith in particular prevent us from getting involved with these characters, and the nicey-nice world that they seem to live in strays implausibly far from reality; when Frank is able in two minutes to convince the Donnie Wahlberg character to change his evil ways, Miller crosses the line from precious to patronizing. There are times throughout the movie where you feel it almost start to veer off into a darker terrain, but it consistently over-corrects and swerves back to the candy mountain (Frank’s eventual perplexing encounter with Lisa is a prime example). I have no problem with sweetness and sentimentality in movies in general, but “Marilyn Hotchkiss” never works hard enough to earn the “You complete me” warm fuzzies.

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