Miller used the scenes from the short film, which is set in 1962, as flashbacks. We see them as the present day version of the short’s main character is telling the story to someone. I didn’t know this was happening until after I had watched the film. I went to IMDB to look up the younger actor and actress and was at first confused. The actress who plays the young Lisa Gobar (Kelley Parker) was also listed as having done a lot of choreography, including on Madonna’s 2001 world tour. I figured that’s either one really talented child, or IMDB had mixed up her page with another person of the same name. When I found out the truth – she would have been an adult by 2001 – it made sense. After discovering this I realized I had wondered if the actor who played the young Steve Mills (Elden Henson) was a younger brother of another actor in the cast. It turns out they were the same actor. He played the lead in the 1990 short and Miller had him come back to play a different role in the 2005 film.
The movie opens with the older Steve Mills (John Goodman) telling us that he had made a pact with Lisa that on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium they would come back to meet at Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, no matter what.
Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle) is driving his bread truck down the highway when a happy Steve Mills (Goodman) passes him. Just a few minutes later, though, Frank comes upon the scene of an accident. Steve has been badly injured. Frank calls 911 and they tell him it’s very important to keep Steve talking, so that he doesn’t lose consciousness.
Frank does so and Steve starts to tell him about the promise he and Lisa made to each other and that that was where he was going. The film then flashes back to the young Steve starting to first realize that girls might be interesting. One in particular – Lisa – is really interesting.
The film then returns to Frank, but not to the accident. We see Frank arriving outside a building. He goes inside and it’s the school Steve told us about. Frank is one of only five men and over a dozen women. There are a number of familiar faces (Donnie Wahlberg, Ian Abercrombie, Marisa Tomei, Sonia Braga, Octavia Spencer, and Mary Pat Gleason.)
Frank is obviously nervous and out of sorts. The instructor (Mary Steenburgen), the daughter of Marilyn Hotchkiss, comes out and almost immediately has the people dancing with each other. As Frank switches from woman to woman he keeps asking if she is Lisa. As they each say no he gets more and more emotional. Finally he leaves the floor and breaks down crying. Meredith (Marisa Tomei) comes over to see if he is okay. I figured this must mean that Steve died and Frank has come to tell Lisa.
However, we see Frank the next day in an encounter group. All of the men in it are widowers. They all have had trouble dealing with the death of their wives to one extent or another. All of the men are familiar faces (Sean Astin, Adam Arkin, David Paymer, David St. James, Miguel Sandoval, and Ernie Hudson). When it comes time for Frank to speak he tells them he went dancing the night before. They are all astonished because since his wife’s death Frank has practically been a recluse. Now we see that he may have been crying because dancing with all of these women was extremely difficult for him because of the death of his wife.
As the movie continues if shifts among the three storylines – Frank, Frank and Steve at the scene of the accident, and Steve as a boy. Each of these storylines moves forward, never backward. There is one flashback at the end of the movie, which includes a cameo from Danny Devito, that shows us the older Steve just before he starts his road trip.
Despite the fact that he only went to try to find Lisa, Frank finds himself back at the dance school the next week. He loosens up a little bit more. He starts to connect with Meredith, but another man there (Wahlberg) warns him to stay away from her. As Frank starts to recover from his wife’s death, he continues to tell the other men at his group about the dance school. One night one of them (Ernie Hudson) shows up, too. He also seems to be able to use the school as a way to get some solace for his wife’s death.
In the accident storyline Steve is getting worse and worse. An ambulance arrives and Frank rides with him because Steve says he needs him. Steve continues to tell his story.
In the young Steve storyline his mother, and all of his friends’ mothers, have made them attend the dancing and charm school. At first all the boys hate it, and the girls aren’t too thrilled about it either. As the weeks go on, though, Steve finds excuses to dance with Lisa more and more often. At first they were play acting the gentleman and lady roles to satisfy the teacher, but then they start to actually find meaning in the phrases they are supposed to utter to each other.
I won’t go further into each of the storylines than that. I will say that we do find out what happened to Lisa. I was worried for a while that they would leave us hanging. We also get a revelation about Steve in the flashback at the end of the film.
Although Robert Carlyle is ostensibly the main character in the film, it’s really an ensemble movie. Pretty much everyone, except for a few of the actors (Wahlberg, Astin, St. James), does a good job. It’s not the fault of those three actors, though; it is the writer/director’s fault. He attempted to inject some humor into the film via these characters, and it just didn’t work. The situations with them come across a little too cartoonish compared to the rest of the film.
That’s my only real complaint with the movie, though. The rest of it is engaging as you want to see what happens with the young Steve and Lisa, with the older Steve’s fate, and with Frank trying to get over his wife’s death. I recommend you give this film a try. You may end up liking it.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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