Writer-director Robert Miller jam-packs his first feature with the "you know, the guy who ..." types. OK, the technical name for them is "character actors," i.e. the actors you know by sight but not necessarily by name. This movie is full of them, and the cast list for Marilynn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is about as long as the unnecessarily lengthy title.
Clumsy but still cute, the movie is spotty and ranges all over the place. Sometimes it succeeds at being comedic, sentimental or dramatic, but the bits that aim for cleverness or irony are ill-conceived.
Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) stars as Frank, an unhappy widower who stops to assist at a traffic accident and promises the wounded driver (John Goodman) he'll track down the man's lost love. Steve, the unfortunate driver, spends his last breaths telling Frank the story of how he promised a girl 40 years ago to the day that they'd meet once again at the dancing school that first brought them together.
Miller struggles a bit with continuity (on the gurney Goodman struggles to speak, but during flashbacks he suddenly gains lucidity and volume) but the fledgling auteur manages to juggle three complicated plots without too much confusion. There's Steve's telling of the story at the accident scene, flashbacks to 12-year-old Steve's reluctant courtship of his dream girl, and Frank's present-day visit to the school in Steve's stead, where he falls quickly for another student (Marisa Tomei) but is put off by her Lord of the Dance-worshipping escort (Donnie Wahlberg).
The former New Kid on the Block in a too-tight white polyester shirt is a hoot, striking his overly dramatic poses on the dance floor with panache. And Mary Steenburgen is perfectly loopy as the heir to the Hotchkiss dance school.
There's a bevy of fun cameos in Frank's bereavement counseling session, including Sean Astin, Adam Arkin, Ernie Hudson, Miguel Sandoval and David Paymer. It's practically a character-actor support group.
Miller achieves some sweet and silly touches, but too many throwaway scenes like Frank's patronage of a lemonade stand or chitchat at his bakery job clutter the picture. Marilynn Hotchkiss tries to strut its stuff as a quirky bit of dramatic comedy, but its moves are just too clunky.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.