LOVE ‘N DANCING

Yes, folks.  There are other films opening this week besides STAR TREK.  And while they may be overshadowed by the legends of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the U.S.S. Enterprise, they are equally deserving of attention, if not moreso.  And while other films may not beam their way into your heart at warp speed, there is one that dazzles, sparkles, sashays, hops, lindies and swings its way in – LOVE ‘N DANCING.

  You all know my great affection for Hollywood musicals and while LOVE ‘N DANCING is not a musical per se, it does have all the charm and heart of a boy meets girl/girl meets boy love story set to the undeniable beat of swing dancing and a kick-up-your- heels soundtrack.   And isn’t it ironic that this little number opens the same weekend that ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” kicks of its semi-final round of celebrities dancing their hearts out in pursuit of the disco ball trophy?  Let’s just say it -  this week the world is alive with the sound of music. . .and dance.

Philadephia.  2002.  Jake Mitchell is the defending World West Coast Swing Champion.  He’s got the moves.  He’s got the looks.  He’s got the girl.  He’s got the title.  What he doesn’t have is his hearing.  (But, as we all know from DWTS and Marlee Matlin, a hearing loss is just a little inconvenience when it comes to dance.)  Not letting this minor impediment curtail his dreams, Jake and his partner Corrine have just captured the title at the World Sing Dancing Championships for the second year in a row.  But for Jake, victory isn’t sweet as he wonders if this isn’t just a sympathy win. 

Fast forward.  Philadelphia 2008. Now in his 30′s, Jake Mitchell still has the looks.  And he’s still got the moves.    But he has retired from dancing and lost the girl.  Not one to give up on his passion for the dance, though, he is dance instructor and does motivational speaking to school age kids encouraging them to not let any kind of disability hold them back from pursuing their dreams.

Jessica Donovan is perky, cute and adorable.  An elementary school teacher, she has longed to pursue her childhood dream of dancing but practicality and life forced her to put that dream aside. aside.  Now engaged to a workaholic who is already married to his work, Jessica feels a great loss in her soul that even her love for teaching can’t fulfill.

So, what happens when Jake appears at Jessica’s school giving a motivational speech?  Not to mention when he makes a few choice dance moves on the auditorium stage?  As if inspiring the kids into a standing ovation isn’t enough, sparkles, er, sparks, fly between Jessica and Jake. Something connects the two.  Dare we say, dance?  Or is it love at first sight?  Of course, that might be a bit difficult since Jessica is engaged and Jake’s former dance partner and fiancé, Corrine, is making an appearance with him at the school assembly and, still regretting losing Jake, does her flirtatious best to entice him back into her web.

With serendipity adding its own spins and dips, Jake offers his services as a dance instructor for Jessica and Kent to prepare them for that all important “first dance” at their wedding.  Only problem is that Kent is “too busy” to take the instruction.  Undeterred by Kent’s disinterest, Jessica goes ahead with the dance lessons with Jake as her “partner.”   But you know those best laid plans of mice and men?  Well, funny how they go awry, especially when love and dancing are in the mix and here, is no exception.  Jessica quickly finds the joy missing in her life – dance.  Jake quickly finds the joy missing in his – a partner with whom he connects, a partner who shares his passion for dance and a partner that believes in him with such fervor that she is willing to risk everything to lure Jake out of retirement and fulfill her own dreams.  With everything on the line, Jake and Jessica decide to compete for the title of World West Coast Dance Champions.   Can this pair of 30-somethings go toe-to-toe with 18 year old competitors, dance away with a championship and each find the life and love they were meant to have?

A competitive West Coast Swing dancer, motivational speaker and film/tv producer, actor and writer in real life, Tom Malloy is a man to whose works I am constantly drawn.   As the writer of “The Alphabet Killer” he had me intrigued from start to finish, leaving me wanting a sequel – now!  As an actor, he is always likeable and solid, bringing an unsuspecting take to a character.   Here, as Jake Mitchell he is no different.  He brings an earnest affability to Jake, complimented by some fancy foot work and a killer smile.  You root for him.  You embrace him.  You want to twirl on the dance floor with him.  (Could he be the next celebrity to sign up for DWTS?)   And then you pair him up with Amy Smart.   What a couple!  Energetic, sincere and adorable, together the two shine with more brilliance than their sequined dance costumes.   There is an undeniable sweetness that just makes you smile watching them. As for Amy Smart’s Jessica, what’s not to like?  I have watched Amy for the past 15 years and she just keeps getting better.  While versatile in her roles, she is at her best when playing the perennially perky girl next door as she did with Ryan Reynolds in “Just Friends” or as Tracey Faucet in “Rat Race.”  So determined to learn to dance, Smart quickly became an aficionado of West Coast Swing and even attended competitions with Malloy and choreographer Robert Royston.  

The real scene stealer is Billy Zane.  As Kent, not only does he perfectly portray an arrogant, cocky businessman (think his signature character of Cal in “Titanic”) but he gets to be a goofball that is just so fun and so entertaining, you have no problem understanding why Jessica would be with this guy even though he basically ignores her.  The icing on the cake, however, are those singular short moments with one line or a glance that show love and caring.  I don’t think I’ve enjoyed watching Zane this much since his days on “Charmed”.  He is spectacular.

If you’re looking for some real characters though, take a look at the supporting cast with the likes of Betty White, Gregory Harrison and Caroline Rhea.   Gregory Harrison plays against type as Kent’s cocky, conceited, “proper” uncle who just happens to be a gold level Arthur Murray dance student (i.e., he thinks he knows everything).  As Jessica’s best friend Bonnie, Caroline Rhea brings her welcome patented brand of humor to the character and the film.  And although brief, Betty White’s screen time will have you in stitches as she turns in a snippet worthy of sex starved Sue Ann Nivens.   Unfortunately, none of these actors are really given quality screen time and seem to be “filler” rather than substance which is a shame as the brief glimpse you get of each leaves you wanting more – especially from Betty White.

Written by Malloy, the story has a very personal tone to it and now wonder, given that Malloy is himself a competitive dancer.  And while he fully fleshes out the main characters of Jake, Jessica and Kent and sets forth a visually comprehensive look at this particular style of dance, he falls short in his supporting characters, each of whom are fascinating and who crave more screen time and development.

The timing and release of LOVE ‘N DANCING couldn’t be better.  As I said, its opening coincides with the semi-finals on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars”, which consistently ranks in the top 3 weekly tv programs, showing that America does love the dance!  But while DWTS may have helped reinvigorate our appreciation and enjoyment for watching dance, it also raises the bar to supreme technical heights which is where LOVE ‘N DANCING falls on its face.  No dazzling camera work to either capture or rival fancy footwork.  Long shots, mid-shots but nothing fancy and nothing that really makes the dancing pop, all of which I find particularly surprising given that the director is Robert Iscove.  A veteran director helming the 1997 tv version of “Cinderella”, and “Save the Last Dance, he is also an accomplished choreographer working with everyone from Ann-Margret to Helen Reddy to Steve Lawrence and Edyie Gorme to Alice Cooper, and even choreographing “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  I don’t know where he left his visually artistic razzle dazzle but it certainly isn’t on the screen here.  Iscove does, however, do a nice job depicting the story between Jessica and Jake.   While enjoyable and adorable, LOVE ‘N DANCING doesn’t mandate the big screen.  Well edited for commercial breaks, I can more easily see this as a Lifetime or Hallmark Move Channel flick.   

Interestingly, while the film is set in Philadelphia, it is filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico which with its quaint little shops and streets easily passes for Chestnut Street, Sansom Street or Market Street in Center City, Philly or even Manayunk.  However, to solidify that the locale is Philly, Iscove uses a myriad of aerial shots depicting Philly’s most iconic night settings  – City Hall with Ben Franklin atop, Boathouse Row, the PSFS and PNB buildings, the Schuylkill River and even the Schuylkill Expressway.

And what about the dancing? All the dancers in the film are real West Coast Swing Dancers, among others.  Choreographed by Robert Royston (whose wife just happens to play Corrine), the routines are dazzling and difficult and called for professionals.  However, in an unusual move, the pro dancers also get to act with speaking parts in the film.  No “dance doubles” going on here.  It was critical to Royston and Malloy that the dancers do the dancing and their own acting.   Undoubtedly, you may recognize Benji Schwimmer, winner of “So You Think You Can Dance” and brother to Lacey, one of the pros on DWTS.  Also making their acting debut are West Coast Swing Champions Jordan Frisbee and Tatiana Mollman who bring new meaning to sniping at your partner.

Perhaps one of the best parts of the film is the music.  All but one song were written specifically for this film and emotionally and stylistically designed to each specific scene.  Available on soundtrack, I have already ordered mine – it’s that good!

LOVE ‘N DANCING – touchy feely, fun-filled and frolicsome, filled with heart and romance and above all – dance!

Jessica – Amy Smart

Jake – Tom Malloy

Directed by Robert Iscove.  Written by Tom Malloy.

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