Susan Seidelman began her career with 1982’s Smithereens and 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, cult movies that explored funky New York subcultures from a sociological and overtly feminist perspective. Seidelman’s earliest films benefit from a specific, finely etched sense of time and place that’s woefully missing from Musical Chairs, a maddeningly generic inspirational dance film that owes less to Seidelman’s first films than to her more recent work directing television movies and TV shows like Sex & The City. In volleying between sitcom saucy and melodrama maudlin, all that’s missing are a braying laugh track and feigned tears.
Yet another wildly formulaic heart-tugger about a talented young dancer risking it all on a crazy dream (when will someone finally make a film about a level-headed, pragmatic dancer who risks a modest amount to achieve an attainable goal?), Musical Chairs casts E.J. Bonilla as a saintly, selfless young dancer who secretly sets up a program teaching the disabled to tango after his boss’ dancing partner (Leah Pipes) ends up wheelchair-bound following a car accident. A smitten and lovestruck Bonilla tries to lure Pipes out of a maelstrom of self-doubt and despair by enrolling her and her colleagues in a big climactic dance competition that pairs disabled dancers with able-bodied partners.
Like Seidelman’s last theatrically released film, the geriatric 2006 sex comedy Boynton Beach Club, Musical Chairs tries to make relatively novel subject matter palatable for the widest possible audience by filling the screen with overly pat conflicts and broadly stereotypical characters. Musical Chairs tries to compensate for the charisma void left by its bland leads with a plethora of strangely interchangeable wacky supporting characters, like a sassy nurse with a heart of gold who isn’t above a little blackmail to help Bonilla achieve his dream, an even sassier, even more gold-hearted transsexual who is always quick with a wisecrack or heartwarming words of wisdom, a macho veteran who thinks dancing is for sissies until he learns otherwise, and a stuffy hospital administrator who threatens to throw a monkey wrench in Bonilla’s noble plans. Musical Chairs wants to speak eloquently and powerfully for the disabled. Instead it speaks down to them in the vernacular of bad television comedies, cheeseball underdog dance movies, and abysmal soap operas.