Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School opens with that ukelele version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that's been making the rounds of allergy commercials lately. From that moment on, you know you're in for a quirky fit of wistfulness.
Director Randall Miller bases this film on a short offering of the same name that he made in 1990 — a standard coming-of-age wank in which 8-year-old boys sullenly attend ballroom dance classes. Miller manages to wring a feature out of the earlier edition by reconfiguring it as a series of flashbacks. He has taken this reheated slop and dumped it into a modern-day story of bereaved bakers, bisected fatty-fats and adult ballroom classes.
Frank (Robert Carlyle) is a mopey baker, recently widowed. He holds onto memories too hard, a fact that his widower support group is kind enough to clue us into, over and over.
As the film opens, Frank is delivering bread in the desert. Steve (John Goodman) speeds past him. A few miles later, Frank comes across Steve's car, wrecked on the highway.
Steve is impaled on the steering column, but is somehow still lucid enough to ramble on through an incessant series of flashbacks.
In his dying moments, Steve reminisces about some girl he punched in the face, and then fell in love with at ... Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. It turns out Steve was driving in such a huff because he and this girl had promised they would meet again on a specific day at ... Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School.
Long story short (but no less treacly): Steve gets Frank to promise to drop in on the school so Lisa isn't left hanging. Of course, Lisa isn't there, but Frank keeps going anyway. From that point on, the film follows a hopscotch chronology of Steve's croaking platitudes: his 8mm Eisenhower-era fugue state; late-night scenes where Frank pounds his lonely dough; and the arch, bizarrely formal scenes of the dance class as it is today.
Marilyn Hotchkiss has long since died, and her daughter Marienne (Mary Steenburgen) has taken over the job of pressing the merengue and a calcified middle-class elegance upon a handful of adults. These scenes, with their musty scent of a dead world, have no place in the rest of the film — and yet they are its only watchable segments. Donnie Wahlberg is amusing as the oily and macho Randall, who cha-chas just as hard as he beats on his stepsister Meredith. Soon it becomes clear that Meredith, played with an annoying winsomeness by Marisa Tomei, is the one whose purity will make Frank come back to the world of the living.
The remainder of the class is a collection of weirdos and old people. Most singular of all is Marienne, whose every word and gesture is an overly rehearsed ritual of polite passion, just like the dances she teaches.
The scenes outside of Marienne's tidy demimonde are a mess of telegraphed but undeveloped characters, spackled over with overbearing music. As we suffer through Frank and Steve's back-stories, the only distraction comes from a passel of "what the fuck?" moments. Taking the lead among that sorry crowd is the discovery that Meredith has a fake leg. This is treated as a shocking revelation — albeit one that winds up having no impact whatsoever on her character or how she interacts with the world. The only conceivable reason for its existence is to bulk up the crust of impenetrable pathos that sags over the film.
The audience is offered no clues as to how Mrs. Hotchkiss' school has evolved from a room full of screaming 8-year-olds to a handful of desperate adult singles — but that actually works in the film's favor. While everything else in this movie is an overwrought salad of borrowed tripe, these scenes are funny, bizarre and cartoonishly surprising (as long as you can ignore Frank's mawkish reawakening whenever he dances with Meredith).
These are the seeds of a much better movie, untainted by the violently goopy instrumentals and mountains of sugar that smother Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School.
Miller has blindly stumbled upon a weird, interesting film somewhere in the middle of his storm of wet crud, but he has neither the wit nor the courage to let it out. Grade: D