Romance / Comedy / Drama
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
A short time ago, a friend told a group of us that a film he had worked on in 2004 was finally going to be released in theaters all over the United States. I was excited for him. Upon hearing the name of the production, I was a tad worried. I mean, Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School was a fairly long title in this day and age of the Short & Sweet Syndrome. The title made me wonder a tad at the content, but I have faith in my friend and his choice of movie roles, so I figured there must be more to this movie than just its title. Once I viewed the trailer, I knew I was right and couldn’t wait to see the full-length film. As it turns out, I had to wait a tad longer than I wanted to – I missed the release and had to wait for Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School to come out on DVD. Boy, was it worth the wait!
Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School centers around Frank Keane, a baker by trade who is suffering from the loss of his beloved wife. Since his wife died, Frank has been going through the motions of living, doing things mechanically and never really experiencing life. His one break from the normal drudgery of his everyday life is the spousal bereavement group that he attends in which he mostly keeps silent and listens to the musings of other grieving husbands. Then, one day, Frank happens upon the scene of a horrific car accident. The driver of the vehicle, Steve Mills, is near death and Frank somehow ends up becoming the man’s lifeline, keeping the driver talking until he can be brought to the hospital. Little does Frank know that this accident, and the promise he makes the Steve will forever change the course of Frank’s life.
The promise – to attend Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School and find Lisa, Steve’s long lost love with whom he had made a pact to meet at this school on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium. Reluctantly, Frank keeps his promise and shows up at the school, searching for Lisa. Instead of finding Steve’s sweetheart, Frank finds himself. For after one class at the Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, Frank is hooked. He realizes that this is the first time since his wife died that he is happy. He wonders at the newfound joy until the instructor explains it to him: “Dance is a very powerful drug Mr. Keane. If embraced judiciously, it can exorcise demons, access deep seated emotions and color your life in joyous shades of brilliant magenta that you never knew existed.”
Soon, Frank finds himself opening up, learning how to express himself and bonding with new friends who understand his love for dance. He has even begun making advances towards another woman in the dance class. The change in Frank is soon witnessed by those in his spousal bereavement group who are amazed at the healing powers of Frank’s dance classes. Seeing how much the classes have helped Frank overcome his grief and pain, they decide to see what Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is all about.
Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is primarily a movie about growth – growth of spirit, of heart, and of mind. Each character throughout the movie experiences growth, including the dance school instructor. Most of the characters in the film seem to be alike – they’re just going through the motions of life and never actually living it. By the end of the film, lackluster characters become vibrant; timidness is replaced by boldness, harshness by serenity, death by love. The whole movie is a growth process.
The actors in the film are incredible, and I’m not just saying this because I have befriended one of them. Frank Keane is portrayed by Robert Carlyle, known for his work in The Full Monty and Angela’s Ashes. He has more than proven his worth in both comedic and dramatic roles and is a treat to watch. Steve Mills is portrayed by John Goodman of Roseanne, The Babe, Fallen and countless other films and television shows. His performance as a dying man who regrets the mistakes of his life and wishes he had taken “the other fork in the road” is interesting. At times, he can make you hate the character and at times, you feel incredibly sorry for him. Mary Steenburgen (Life As A House, I Am Sam, Philadelphia) portrays the instructor at the Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. We watch her character, Marienne, daughter of the infamous Marilyn, bloom as a woman following in her mother’s footsteps who is just beginning to realize some independence. The remarkable Marissa Tomei (Untamed Heart, My Cousin Vinny) is equally enjoyable as Meredith Morrison, a shy and slightly mysterious woman who steals Frank’s heart. Several other actors added character to this film and I would be remiss if I did not mention them. Terrific performances were put in by Donnie Wahlberg, Sean Astin, Ian Abercrombie, David Paymer, Ernie Hudson, and Elden Henson, who actually plays two characters in this movie.
One of the many interesting features of Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is that the movie is actually a remake of a short film made in 1990 by Randall Miller, the same individual who created the full-length feature film. This explains the dual roles by Elden Henson. The original short film contained a young Elden, who portrayed Steve Mills as a child suffering through dance and charm school in the 60’s. Fifteen years later, Elden finds himself portraying one of Frank’s employees at the bakery. Footage from the 1990 film was used to illustrate the adult Steve Mills’ story about his long lost love Lisa. Thus, Elden Henson appears in the film in both the past and the present. (Before I knew this interesting tidbit, I had thought that the young Steve Mills was portrayed by Elden Henson’s son.)
If the film’s message or the actors’ incredibly talented performances weren’t enough to make you take notice of the film, then the cinematography will. The use of harsh lighting throughout the scenes in which Steve and Frank interact serve to make them more strikingly poignant. It was as if the harshness of the lighting and the color were indicators that the conversation passing between the two characters was incredibly important. When Frank attends the class for the first time, the movement of the camera…the blurred lines and colors…stress the confusion, fear and excitement that Frank is experiencing. The movie seems to get brighter and more colorful as the characters come out of their shells and begin to bloom.
Overall, I would say that my acting buddy made an excellent choice in opting to work on this film. Terrific acting, beautiful camera work, an enjoyable story with a strong message about growth and enjoying life - Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School has it all! And happily, as an extra, the DVD version contains the 1990 short film as well, in case you are interested in viewing it in its entirety. Take my word for it, this is one movie you don’t want to miss! Thanks for the recommendation, Ian!