It’s killing Tina (Laura Benanti, TV’s “Starved”).
Every time the effortlessly charming dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (the effortlessly charming actor Antonio Banderas, “The Legend of Zorro”) callously runs his hand through her hair in a gesture of casual intimacy, it kills her a little more.
This much we know, thanks to the improbably expository dialogue of “Take the Lead,” a film that cheers as Pierre takes his ballroom dance steps from the marble halls of cultural elitism to a crumbling school in the Bronx. The domination complex he nourishes in those interactions with his stoically pining secretary is a sidenote – but an appropriate caption to a film so epically inappropriate, outstandingly simplistic and yet ultimately, persistently and against all better judgment, so infectiously appealing.
True, Pierre doesn’t mean any harm by it. He’s the kind of saint-like movie hero who darkly alludes to a tempestuous past, only to dash off to rescue a hospital of orphaned kittens, and maybe convert a drug-dealing thug into a champion waltz competitor on the way. There’s no concept of doubt here. Pierre’s singular vision – turning these aimless inner-city teenagers into upstanding citizens with a fondness for the foxtrot – is as inexorable as it is unlikely, and human emotions like frustration and impatience just don’t enter into his picture.
And while even such a shallow characterization might be easily overlooked if Pierre were another fearlessly idealistic poet, the film doesn’t quite know how to defend the importance of ballroom dancing in the lives of its troubled heroes. Respect becomes the crux of the issue. An unflappable Pierre tells the PTA that teaching dance is teaching kids how to move, but that it also teaches men how to handle women with respect, and women how to respect themselves.
Of course, in this case, self-respect for women equates to a tacit agreement to follow: The man, as Pierre so firmly reminds us, always leads. Women may be submissive, but they gain empowerment precisely through the willingness with which they submit. Problematic for a film titled “Take the Lead” (referring to the autonomy and responsibility the dancing presumes to instill in the kids) with the tagline “Never Follow.” Instead of leading, the film’s women get speeches that could just as easily justify keeping them in the kitchen as on the dancefloor.
But if the film is clumsily inept with its feminist slant, it’s so wildly misguided about race and class that it almost becomes endearing. Take Caitlin (Lauren Collins, TV’s “Degrassi: The Next Generation”). Dressed in cardigans and mary janes, she’s sheltered and a hopeless dancer. Pierre takes her to the Bronx where, in the presence of poor people and their crazy hip-hop lifestyle, she transforms into a bold and adroit social player. At the uptown-ball finale, one of Pierre’s students scorns the live orchestra, instead pumping his iPod over the speaker system. In the richly clich