Sonoma Film Festival: Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School

This is my first destination film festival and I expected two things. First, challenging films. Second, rough production quality. Neither proved to be true and the official opening night film, Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, was no exception. It prompted me to locate the single descriptive adjective I stuck with for the rest of the weekend: palatable. The plot follows a man as he copes with the death of his wife and re-starts his life. The man is played by Robert Carlyle and the re-start is played by Marisa Tomei.

I loved Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty. However, while it catapulted his career forward, it has forever undermined his credibility as a ballroom dancer. There is not a moment he spends on the dance floor when we do not expect him to disrobe. It’s a too bad for him, but there it is and it does this film no favors. His equally redundant sad sack widower/menial laborer status matches up with Tomei’s semi-abused (one unexplained black eye which we are meant to believe she received from her stepbrother), pouty but feisty re-dux of all her other movie roles. Don’t get me wrong: I have a soft spot for Tomei’s less than stellar movies of the last decade (The Paper, Only You), but the same pursed lips, the same hand gestures and the same New Jersey inflections eventually get old even for me.

Typecasting is an unfortunate fact for actors but it serves directors well. It’s that much less story they have to tell. Everyone in the audience knows that Harrison Ford = there’s a bomb/terrorist/booby-trap/simplistic happy ending on the plane/in the White House/under the temple/in the cinema. This is understandably frustrating for Ford and requires him to really reach (e.g. Frantic) and keep reaching, even when movies fall flat at the box office, until he re-trains the audience. In Marilyn Hotchkiss, the director was fortunate enough to get actors whose known images could stand in for a substantial or complex plot. It worked fine but I guarantee that within a month, I won’t be able to remember anything about the movie except that I saw it.

The secondary plot relied equally heavily on stereotypes. John Goodman, choosing to speak in an inexplicable near-falsetto due to abdominal damage sustained in a car accident, tells the backstory of his tenure at Marilyn Hotchkiss’ school in grainy flashbacks to a cleaner better time in America when little boys hated little girls, all the children got together after school to play gender-specific games, and all the mommies wore gloves and drove wide cars. It was like an ad for the AARP or the Republican Party and everyone in the wealthy, 50+ audience ate it up like sepia-tinted ice cream.

The director explained after the film that the flashbacks were pieces of a student film he did ages ago. While incorporating them into a feature-length film may have been unique and satisfying for him, it did no favors for the sentimental and under-developed film that was the result.



Categories: Watch This


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