So, you knew it was coming, right? Just as Spellbound
(the engrossing and Oscar-nominated 2002 doc, not the classic ’45
Hitchcock noir) provided the requisite degree of
viability to garner the green light for such sesquipedalian-themed
projects as Bee Season and Akeelah And The Bee,
so too has the celebrated Mad Hot Ballroom kicked the door
wide-ass open for the Antonio-Banderas-as-Whoopi-Goldberg/Michelle-Pfeiffer/Edward-James-Olmos
dancer flick Take The Lead. (The vast, almost disturbingly
rabid following commandeered by the recent Fox experiment “Dancing
with the Stars” didn’t hurt too much, either.)
The plot you can more or less pick up from the trailers: Banderas
is Pierre Dulaine, an ex-pro dancer who, through an unorthodox series
of events, comes to teach a ballroom dancing class to a plucky group
of “at-risk youth” in inner-city New York and, wonder
of wonders, ends up instilling in them more than just foxtrot familiarity,
while learning valuable lessons from them in the process. Ka-blammo!
Box office gold!
But really, I’ve got no business being that sarcastic about
this picture. For all its predictability, it does pack a couple
of surprises. Surprise no. 1: It’s based on a true story.
Surprise no. 2: I genuinely liked and enjoyed it. What can I say?
Under the right circumstances, I’m a sucker for a by-the-numbers
(But I’m still a tough guy. Just so you know.)
(Just today, in fact, I spurned “sensitive skin” Barbasol
for the far more rugged “original.” So I’ve got
a little pansy credit stored up.)
After witnessing troubled youth Rock (Finding Forrester’s
Rob Brown, whom I like more and more) trash his
high school principal’s car on a dare from some bad dudes,
Dulaine ends up in the administratrix’s office, with a mind
to tell her whodunit. By the time he walks out, however, he’s
committed to taking over a detention-monitor position none of the
faculty wanted to touch. Detention period, of course, quickly turns
into dance class. Following the mandatory preliminary handful of
fruitless attempts, Dulaine finally gets the kids to listen up,
and gradually convinces them that they’ve got the talent to
compete in a prestigious citywide competition, employing their unique
and fledgling brand of hip-hop/ballroom fusion.
Banderas is fine—eminently likable, dashing, swoon-inspiring,
all that—and he gets a chance to be funny, which I always
enjoy from him. (He’s also playing an eminently classy, well-mannered
gentleman; like the dude needs any sort of edge in the ladykiller
department. Sheesh.) The good-in-everything Alfre Woodard
is a hoot in a supporting role as the prickly, hard-assed principal,
while romantic leads Brown and Yaya DaCosta (a
former runner-up on “America’s Next Top Model”
who exhibits significant chops, especially for a catwalk import)
carry their parts well in what is a surprising satisfying love story.
And Marcus T. Paulk gets more than his share of
belly-laughs as a lippy would-be waltzer.
For the first half hour or so, Take The Lead manages
to be pretty fresh, smart, funny… good, in a word. And there
are a few more commendable laughs and moments littered throughout.
(Plus: Dante Basco, a.k.a. Rufio, Rufio, Ru-fi-ooo!)
Once the plot machinations start, though (there are plenty, and
you’ll certainly see them coming), things settle into a disappointingly
familiar rubric. Which is to be expected, of course; I guess I just
hoped they’d tweak it a little. But they don’t. All
the same, it’s a good time, and you root for the onscreen
folks, even if you can periodically spout out their next line before
they do. Thing with me is, I’m a sucker for that whole airy
vein of “talented kids aiming at a longshot” pictures,
no matter how much, as a critic, I’m supposedly enjoined to
name them execrable. To this day, if I’m flipping channels
and Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit is on, I’ll tarry,
and more than likely lose at least 45 minutes at its hands. Take
The Lead almost isn’t bad enough to fall into “guilty
pleasure” territory. But it is. If you’re a soft-touch
alpha male like me, or a chick, feel free to check it out.
I, for one, won’t pick on you.