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Dead Man on Campus, first-time feature director Alan Cohn’s surprisingly good-natured farce about college suicide, left me perversely nostalgic for my undergraduate days at Cornell University. At least twice each term, my early-morning trudge to class was enlivened by the sight of cops hoisting the corpse of some luckless schoolmate a morose drunk, a humiliated student caught having restroom sex with his engineering instructor from one of Ithaca’s spectacular ravines. There was a campus idiom for this method of self-extermination that every Cornellian surely remembers “gorging out.”
Daleman College, Dead Man on Campus’ fictional setting, affords a more nurturing environment than my alma mater. Even though Michael Traeger and Mike White’s screenplay (based on a story by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder) involves a quest to ferret out a suicidally despondent undergraduate, the movie offers up no casualties.
Tom Everett Scott stars as Josh, a straight-arrow freshman who arrives from Indiana with a full scholarship and the determination to devote his energies to a demanding six-year medical school program. He’s soon led down the primrose path by his roommate Cooper (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), the partying scion of a toilet-cleaning magnate. A distracting regimen of booze, dope, and sex causes Josh to bomb all of his midterms. Cooper, who has not attended a single class, suggests that their academic careers might be salvaged by the invocation of the “dead man’s clause,” an urban myth that universities benevolently award 4.0 grade averages to students whose roommates have killed themselves.
Dead Man on Campus is like a reheated Animal House until its midpoint but perks up with the search for a potential suicide to save Josh and Cooper from academic expulsion. The first candidate is Cliff (Lochlyn Munro), a hyperactive rakehell whose outrageousness is exceeded only by his knack for survival. (After accidentally setting a date’s hair on fire, he sadly mutters, “I guess now a blowjob’s kinda out of the question.”) Next comes Buckley (Randy Pearlstein), a paranoid schizophrenic computer geek who believes that Bill Gates is conspiring to kill him. Finally, there’s Matt (Corey Page), a nihilistic, Camus-reading English punk rocker who turns out to be a poseur on several counts.
Co-produced by MTV and Paramount, Dead Man on Campus is disposably diverting, kept aloft by Scott’s low-key charm and an energetic score featuring contributions by Marilyn Manson, the Dust Brothers, Blur, and Supergrass. Less twisted than its dark premise suggests, the movie is at its best when tweaking undergrad naivete. Entering the Daleman library (for the first time) to see whether the “dead man’s clause” is included in the school’s charter, an awed Cooper observes, “This must be a great college to have all these books.”
In a summer of hit movies focusing on depravity (Buffalo ’66, The Opposite of Sex, There’s Something About Mary, Your Friends & Neighbors) and carnage (Blade, Halloween: H2O, Saving Private Ryan, Snake Eyes), it’s hard not to forgive many of Dance With Me’s shortcomings. Randa Haines’ colorful, rhythmic romance set in the rarefied world of ballroom-dance competitions is overlong, formulaic, and awkwardly structured. But with its appealing characters, offbeat milieu, and attractive cast, Dance With Me is often enjoyable if ultimately unsatisfying.
In a prologue, Rafael Infante (Puerto Rican pop singer and soap star Chayanne), mourning his mother’s death, leaves Cuba for Texas to accept a handyman job offered by John Burnett (a graying, ghostly Kris Kristofferson), the weary proprietor of Houston’s run-down Excelsior Dance Studio. (Screenwriter-choreographer Daryl Matthews tips us off early that Rafael is the love child of John’s cruise-ship romance with his onetime dance partner, a fact of which John, himself, is unaware.) At the Excelsior, Rafael meets Ruby Sinclair (Vanessa L. Williams), a nomadic Army brat and former professional Latin ballroom competitor. Abandoned with a son by her erstwhile partner Julian (Rick Valenzuela)apparently, dancers have no time for birth control Ruby hopes to resurrect her career at the forthcoming international championships in Las Vegas.
Slowly but inevitably, Rafael and Ruby are drawn together despite a few bumps in their path, including conflicting terpsichorean philosophies. (She favors planned, rehearsed choreography; he is more spontaneous, allowing the music to inspire him.) Their romance unfolds against the backdrop of Excelsior patrons vibrant senior citizen Bea (Joan Plowright), ethereal ballet hopeful Patricia (Jane Krakowski), and Ruby’s earnest but hapless student Michael (Harry Groener.)
Much of the film’s allure stems from the physical beauty of its leading players. Williams (those lips! those legs!) and Chayanne (those teeth! those James Mason eyebrows!) sweep us back to the swoony Hollywood dream-factory era when movie stars didn’t look like Nicolas Cage and Whoopi Goldberg. Haines and Matthews clearly have classic MGM musicals on their minds. Like The Band Wagon, Dance With Me toys with audience expectations by preventing its initially antagonistic leads from dancing together until the movie’s midpoint. Later on, Chayanne, trapped by a lawn sprinkler system, pays homage to Gene Kelly’s signature turn in the rain.
In vintage musicals, dance functions as a courtship ritual, a metaphor for physical and emotional synchronicity. (This point is made explicit in Swing Time when a forlorn Fred Astaire, rejected by Ginger Rogers, sings “Never Gonna Dance.”) Dance With Me’s central flaw is that Williams and Chayanne, so empathic in their dramatic scenes, fail to achieve the requisite affinity in motion. Their first number, set in a freewheeling salsa club, works best because it’s an ensemble piece, shot with long, fluid camera movements, in which Ruby and Rafael interact with the other patrons. When they dance together at the film’s fadeout, Haines resorts to fragmented editing to conceal the fact that Chayanne lacks his co-star’s technique and panache.
Matthews is forced to concoct some laborious plot twists to team the movie’s protagonists with other, more suitable partners. The interminable Las Vegas competition, which consumes the movie’s closing half-hour, consists of six back-to-back dance numbers. First off, Chayanne and Krakowski, garbed in a ghastly, cream-colored chiton, perform a pretentious “theater arts” routine consisting mostly of corny lifts that improbably dazzle spectators. Next, Chayanne partners tubby Plowright in a sendup of the previous pseudoclassical number that is intended to be funny and endearing, but comes off as flat and vaguely embarrassing. Then Williams and Valenzuela perform a trio of full-length competition pieces a samba, a cha-cha, and a rumba which is followed by the lovers’ reconciliation dance in an after-hours club. An assortment of half-developed narrative loose ends Rafael’s efforts to win his father’s acceptance; Ruby’s conflicting obligations to her career, son, Rafael, and Julian; and the impending collapse of the Excelsior, to mention only a few are swiftly (and inanely) tied up in a party-sequence coda in which the characters enjoy an orgy of happy endings.
Although clumsy, old-fashioned, and occasionally yucky, Dance With Me is largely redeemed by its sweetness, vivid camerawork, and extravagant score featuring 43 soundtrack performances by, among others, Roy Orbison, Chet Baker, Jackie Wilson, Gloria Estefan, Ruben Blades, Louis Prima, the Manhattan Transfer, Dean Martin, Sinead O’Connor, Paquito D’Rivera, and Aretha Franklin, and a closing-credits duet by Williams and Chayanne. Dance With Me won’t erase memories of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen movies, but it offers a few faint echoes of the pleasure that dance musicals routinely provided before the genre’s collapse.CP