Far too many screen romances follow tiresome patterns; with romantic comedies and redemption dramas in particular, the genre conventions add up to a paint-by-numbers template, and the variables from film to film are mostly momentary gimmicks. Beginning with its unwieldy title, Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School evades clichés and expectations alike by heading into awkward, odd territory. Most romantic comedies briefly threaten a tragic breakup and an unhappy ending; in Marilyn Hotchkiss, that threat would actually be credible, if the overstuffed story left enough breathing room for it.
As the film opens, emotionally comatose recent widower Robert Carlyle discovers a bloodied, fading John Goodman at the site of a one-car accident; the 911 operator orders Carlyle to keep Goodman talking until EMTs arrive. Though seemingly petrified by the idea of close contact with another human being, Carlyle listens as Goodman explains his scheduled rendezvous with a childhood sweetheart. They haven't seen each other in 40 years, but they were to meet "on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium" at, surprise, Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, where they first came together. From there, the film lurches between Goodman's flashbacks to childhood, Carlyle's uncomfortable roadside (and, eventually, ambulance) attempts to keep him engaged and conscious, and Carlyle's own later trip to the school, where he seeks out Goodman's old friend. Instead, he finds an antiquated microcosm of stilted manners, dainty airs, and lonely people, including reedy teacher Mary Steenburgen, cringing victim Marisa Tomei, and possessive, glowering Donnie Wahlberg.
As absorbingly weird and dark and sad as the film becomes, it still labors against jumpy construction, an irritating variety of visual styles and film stocks, and a crowded story that no one gets much individual screen time, which means that redemption for everyone comes far too quickly and neatly. Particularly for Carlyle, who overcomes his post-traumatic mental freeze with a sudden ease that rightly stuns his widowers' support group. Which, incidentally, seemingly doubles as a support group for also-ran character actors like David Paymer and Ernie Hudson. They almost seem to be channeling their career frustration into their performances—which, like most in Marilyn Hotchkiss, are pitch-perfect, though it is annoying listening to the wounded Goodman squeak and whimper through his monologues. Still, it's better than watching yet another pair of pretty, perfect twentysomethings find saccharine bliss in movie-romance-land.