J. Lo Hits A New Low

Good people make mistakes, too, and Shall We Dance?, an arthritic remake of the delightful 1996 Japanese film of the same title, is a big mistake for everyone concerned. Marquees are jumping the gun with pre-Halloween hair-raisers all over town. Shall We Dance? is not a Halloween movie, but it can be blood-curdling watching Jennifer Lopez trying to act.

Miramax made it difficult for the critics to see this bomb in advance. After trudging off to a local Cineplex on a Sunday night, where I counted 12 other people in the audience, I can understand why. Under the clunky direction of Peter Chelsom, while forced to mouth inane dialogue by Audrey Wells (who fared better with one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, Under the Tuscan Sun), a swell bunch of troupers get mangled in a monsoon of clichés. There was something elegant and charming about the bravery of a dull, uptight Japanese businessman taking dancing lessons to challenge a thousand years of masculine tradition in a feudal system that is only now breaking free from the social oppression of both sexes. Without any cultural clash, there isn’t much point in making a big deal out of an American who just wants to fox-trot.

The new Shall We Dance?, set in Chicago, which is played by Vancouver, doesn’t go for any feelings at all, and Richard Gere doesn’t supply any. He plays John Clark, a lawyer who specializes in drafting last wills and testaments. After 20 years of slaving over codicils to determine which family poodle gets a college diploma and which daughter gets the antique-spoon collection, John lumbers home every night on the elevated train to find a foil-wrapped Hungry Man in the oven and a wife and two kids pursuing their busy social lives elsewhere. Clearly, this is a neglected man ready for either an affair or a dance contest. Jennifer Lopez almost fulfills both needs, but she’s too busy rolling her rear end into camera range and looking sultry in the close-ups to contribute—to Mr. Gere or to the movie. (This is the movie during which her relationship with Ben Affleck was hitting the well-publicized skids, and she looks distraught and distracted throughout.) She is pouting Paulina, a dance instructor at Miss Mitzi’s Dance School, a seedy tango palace that has seen better days, which John notices every night from his window seat on the “el” train to suburbia. Once he bites the bullet, climbs those stairs to the whorehouse décor of Miss Mitzi’s and signs on for beginners’ classes in the transforming magic of ballroom dancing, he changes from a shy, awkward, mild-mannered, white-haired Clark Kent into a raging bull of self-assurance in the rumba ring. Never mind that his wife (the great and wasted Susan Sarandon, who must be slumming to accept not only a nothing role, but second billing to J. Lo!) is so preoccupied that she doesn’t even notice her husband has been away from home every Wednesday night for two months. He’s too busy doing the box step with a gay Marlboro Man who comes out of the closet doing the cha-cha-cha (terrific Bobby Cannavale, from The Station Agent); an obese African-American (Omar Benson Miller) who loses weight and finds a fiancée; a brassy waitress (Lisa Ann Walter) who recruits John to partner her in a waltz contest; and a ludicrously silly officemate (Stanley Tucci) with a secret passion for sequins.

The plot thickens—I mean, curdles—when Ms. Sarandon hires a private eye to find out why John never comes home after work on Wednesday night. Gone is the insight into the Japanese character that made the original movie so appealing and instructive. There is no insight in this ill-advised remake. Not much entertainment value, either. You wait for two hours and when J. Lo, the cold teacher, and Mr. Gere, the scared student, finally sizzle in a seductive mastery of the torrid tango, the sweat pays off for such a brief moment of terpsichore that you almost forget the idiotic dialogue. She: “You’re the frame, she’s the picture in your frame—everything you do is to show her off.” He: “I like it when my feet hurt—takes my mind off my knees.” The movie aims to showcase the many restorative, therapeutic and life-altering values of ballroom dancing—without sex, nudity, violence or too much of J Lo. (She is reportedly asking $12 million a picture just to shake her ass; she makes one flop after another and they pay it. Can you wonder why the movies are headed for Hell in a Hollywood hot tub?) What Shall We Dance? does best is show off the dancing finesse that Richard Gere introduced in Chicago. When he stops on a windy Chicago street, pauses in front of a television store and watches Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire sail through the “Girl Hunt” ballet in The Band Wagon, we see the goal of a middle-aged man hanging on to a dream. Do I see a Broadway musical in his future? Is Richard Gere the next Hugh Jackman? The guy is practicing.

Wasted

It’s time to carve the pumpkins, heat the cider and get the old Dracula fangs out of mothballs. It’s jack-o’-lantern weather, and the movies are ready with an annual cauldron of seasonal chills. As usual, there’s more trick than treat, but here’s a ghoulish exception: Resembling grim photos of dying AIDS patients or the skeletal remains of Auschwitz survivors when the Allies liberated the death camps in 1945, hunky Christian Bale gives his all for his art in The Machinist. Three years ago, in the creepy low-budget thriller Session 9, director Brad Anderson got some genuinely gruesome grunge out of a deserted insane asylum inhabited by the ghosts of tortured and lobotomized patients. Now he nails shut a different kind of crypt with the lurid tale of a deluded, hallucination-obsessed insomniac who hasn’t slept in one whole year and looks it. For this blue-collar shock treatment, Mr. Bale lost almost 100 pounds of body fat, and the result is easily the scariest thing going. In his claustrophobic world, he takes you into some deep, dark corners of the human existence you are not likely to relish. Sleep-deprived until his body has worn down to a frail, emaciated frame, his cheekbones, ribs and vertebrae threaten to rip through his skin and crack like breadsticks. During the day, he works by bending over a dangerous drill press in a machine shop, surrounded by flying sparks and the maddening screech of metal. Fellow employees are freaked out by his looks and weakness, especially when one wrong move rips off a limb and inspires fear and loathing.

At night, this walking zombie finds comfort in the filthy bed of a decadent prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who specializes in lowlifes). Things get worse as his brain disintegrates into the half-light between sleep and consciousness. He becomes fixated on laundry bleach, buying gallons of it to scrub his bathroom tiles. He starts seeing imaginary people. Strange Post-its appear stuck on his refrigerator. The license plate he turns in after a hit-and-run driver tries to mow him down in the street turns out to be his own. The photo of a bald man turns up everywhere. It might be the battered hooker’s ex-husband. Meanwhile, blood drips out of his kitchen appliances. As darkness closes in on this weary working-class wacko, there is no relief in sight. What is the fuss about? Why can’t he sleep? As he loses his tenuous grasp on reality, so does the film. Blood and grease and vomit pool at the edges of the stark nightmare canvas director Anderson paints from the morbid script by Scott Kosar, who also penned the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The effect here is less an obvious, straightforward horror flick and more subtly evocative of German expressionism. Much of Mr. Bale’s memorable but repellent performance reminded me of the painful, grimaced faces in George Grosz paintings. For a movie few people are ever likely to see, you have to wonder if the sacrifice was worth it.

Ashen, shadowy and threatening, the paranoid ambiance is inspired more by Franz Kafka than Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff. “The Metamorphosis” comes to mind instantly; in Christian Bale’s physically devastated and mentally deranged creep-out performance, he comes closer to a wounded and hobbling human insect than anything ever captured on film.

Cy’s Standard

On a more pleasurable note, if you care about either the cabaret scene’s declining state of mediocrity or the zenith of greatness to which Broadway theater songs can ascend, you must run don’t walk to Feinstein’s at the Regency, where the magnitude of jazz pianist-singer-composer-songwriter Cy Coleman’s remarkable talents are on view through Oct. 23. This is one of the finest supper-club shows I have ever seen in New York—especially at the Regency, where most of the recent bookings seem to be better suited to the departure lounge of an overcrowded airline terminal. But Cy Coleman is everything that musically defines New York sophistication. He has won so many awards for the sensational scores of Little Me, Wildcat, Sweet Charity, Seesaw, I Love My Wife, The Will Rogers Follies, City of Angels and The Life, to name but a few of his hits, and he is currently working on new Broadway musicals with A.R. Gurney, Wendy Wasserstein, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. So as far as contemporary theater music goes, he’s right up there with Sondheim.

But it’s his awesome, knockout work on the keyboards that provides the dazzle here. Unless you’ve been lucky enough to revel in his artistry at a concert tribute or in his own living room, you may not realize what a consummate performer he is. Most of the timeless legends in the American Songwriters Hall of Fame could sing and play their own songs—most notably Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen—but not one approached the Cy Coleman level. This is as it should be. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 6, and by the 1950’s he was a fixture in the most glamorous clubs in Manhattan, working with Ella Fitzgerald at Bop City and Sarah Vaughan at Cafe Society, headlining at the Embers and Billy Reed’s Little Club (where he followed in the footsteps of a newcomer named Doris Day), and becoming a long-running staple at the Sherry-Netherland. That whole vanished era of midnight allure returns with this show. Cy swings in chords on Bob Dorough’s jazz classic “Coming Home,” essays fresh and surprising jazz riffs on “St. Louis Blues” and explores new subtexts on the beloved “Green Dolphin Street,” which, very few music nuts realize, began its life as the Bronislau Kaper theme music for a Lana Turner movie.

If it’s the Cy Coleman standards you crave, a treat awaits. In addition to tender vocal readings of “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” “It Amazes Me” and “Witchcraft,” Cy sails through a medley of 14 gems introduced by Sinatra, Mabel Mercer, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Tommy Tune, Gwen Verdon and others too historic to mention. Accompanied by Gary Haase on bass and Buddy Williams on drums, he sings the way he plays—relaxed, no frills, slightly raspy, dreamily cognizant of the lyrics, always in tune. This is an evening of rapture. It is too good for a night club. It is also too expensive. Serious musicians couldn’t spring for a bottle of Perrier in these posh surroundings. Young vocalists who want to hear, learn and sing Cy Coleman songs cannot afford the price of a shrimp cocktail at Feinstein’s. No, this show deserves a bigger audience. It belongs in a small New York stage venue where maximum exposure is guaranteed. If there are still one or two smart, sane or tasteful producers left among the pathetic amateurs who populate what is laughably called the legitimate theater, what are they waiting for? Cy Coleman is one of the high-water marks in show business by which other standards are measured. Hock the pearls. Massage that Visa card. Get to the Regency fast. This is as good as it gets.