'Charm' sweet, easy


Published April 17, 2006

While bleeding profusely after a grievous car accident on a deserted highway, the first thing on most people's minds would probably not be nostalgia for some ages-past middle school cotillion. But Steve (John Goodman, "The Big Lebowski") is late for a very important date with his grade-school sweetheart from 1962.

He was 12. He still "hated girls more than liver." And he was forced by his mother to attend cotillion.

In his stead, the injured Steve sends Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle, "Trainspotting"), the passing driver of a bread truck who had stopped to call 911. If few people would want to think about a ballroom dance, even less would deign to go. But Frank is a lonely man without much else to do than knead that bread. Habitually quiet, the socially anxious Frank even stammers with his own name.

But Frank finds himself drawn back to Marilyn Hotchkiss's Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, though he doesn't find Steve's grade-school sweetheart there. As governed by the satin-gloved Marienne (Mary Steenburgen, "Philadelphia," plying her patented icy grace), devoted daughter of the deceased Marilyn, Hotchkiss's school teaches a sweetly archaic sort of formal dance. Girls line up on one side of the room, boys on the other; flirting is rampant, smiles are coy, but all sexual frankness is channeled safely into the suggestiveness of the moves on the floor.

Even an adult dance course can't escape the need for a class bully. The resident hotshot comes in the form of Randall (Donnie Wahlberg, recently of "Saw II" but more famously of Marky Mark's family), the rare self-described bad boy who doesn't bat an eye at consistently outfitting himself in a flamboyantly tight and see-through shirt. Randall is the best dancer in class and knows it. Naturally, he takes personal offense when Keane's personal blossoming starts to "step on his toes."

But giving the bad guy a soft side fits in surprisingly well with the rest of "Marilyn." For once in a romantic comedy, it's the men who pine for lost loves - Goodman for his grade-school crush, Randall for his maltreated step-sister and Frank for his dead wife.

Despite the ready playfulness of "Marilyn Hotchkiss," the whole film builds around a story which simply doesn't merit its high production value. Frank's plight doesn't come off like subtle drama - the movie's commitment to cinema formula almost seems to mock him. Even the unflaggingly consistent Goodman is wasted, constantly rhapsodizing life-is-short epigrams.

But writer-director Randall Miller clearly has a soft spot for the material, having worked it once before in a 1990 short which he also wrote and directed. By way of Goodman's flashbacks, he incorporates some of the short's grade-school cotillion footage (which amusingly includes Michael Bower, everyone's favorite fat kid, better known as Donkeylips on Nickelodeon's "Salute Your Shorts"). Toward the end of the dance, one little hair-gelled boy slouches tuckered out on a sideline couch. "I'm tired of being charming," he sighs. Though "Marilyn Hotchkiss," at 100 minutes, keeps things fairly concise, it's a sentiment you wish the movie would share.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Marilyn Hotchkiss's Ballroom Dancing & Charm School
At the Michigan Theater
Samuel Goldwyn Films