Dance films, when done right, can inspire a unique kind of joy in their audiences. The story of Pierre Dulaine and the ballroom dance program he founded for inner city kids makes for a terrific film—and that film was last year’s Mad Hot Ballroom. That documentary followed a group of middle school students as they prepared for competition. The film is truly inspiring, the kids are adorable, the will-they-or-won’t-they suspense is often unbearably tense, and by the end, my face actually hurt from smiling so much. Cut to April 2006 and now we have a fictionalized account of how it all began in Take the Lead, and unfortunately, it doesn’t have a fraction of Mad Hot Ballroom’s charm.
For starters, the film is half an hour too long. At nearly two hours, any momentum it has going for it is drained away. Director Liz Friedlander needed to seriously tighten the bolts on this lightweight concoction in order for it to have any chance of working. Furthermore, despite being “inspired by true events” (a sneaky bit of wordplay that lately has allowed screenwriters to take major liberties with true stories), Dianne Houston’s script feels contrived at every turn. Attempts at dealing with the difficulties of inner city kids’ home lives are watered-down and condescending. Issues like prostitution, rape, gang violence and teen pregnancy are all introduced, but glossed over lightly to keep the movie on its feel-good path. The simplicity with which these complex issues are handled in the film is an insult to the millions of people for whom these problems are a daily reality.
Any bright moments in Take the Lead come primarily from its cast of newcomers. The kids are mostly fresh faces (save for Finding Forrester’s Rob Brown) and they remain fresh even when the film itself couldn’t be staler. As dancers, however, they are a mixed bag and since the film centers around them taking on snooty rich white kids who have been dancing for more than a decade, that is a problem. An odd, almost icky ménage-a-trois tango near the end of the film highlights this by combining talented dancers with awkward novices. Adding to this is the fact that here we have yet another dance movie directed by someone who doesn’t know how to film and edit a dance number for maximum effect (Dance with Me and the tepid Shall We Dance? remake also fell prey to this). Critics who lately seem to be reneging the critical support they lavished three years ago on Rob Marshall and Chicago should take another look at it—at least he new how to make dance exciting.
The other linchpin in making a story like this work is the believability of the teacher at its center and I’m not sure that Antonio Banderas (as Dulaine) has the right charisma to pull it off. Banderas is an actor always on the brink of being ridiculous. His work in Shrek 2 and those REALLY unfortunate Nasonex commercials indicate he is not fighting his inevitable descent into self-parody. He has a self-serious intensity that can occasionally be commanding, but most often just comes off as hammy or corny. Rather than embolden the weak script with an honest performance, he gives in to its wink-wink cutesiness and TV movie dramatics. While credible as a dancer, his rapport with the students feels forced and inauthentic.
Ultimately, this film doesn’t even achieve the dramatic weight of the similarly themed Dangerous Minds (itself only a so-so picture). It takes the easy way out again and again, taking all the air out of a truly uplifting story. In the end, Take the Lead doesn’t follow the advice of its own title.
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