In the case of The Dancer Upstairs, writer Nicholas Shakespeare is no Shakespeare. His screenplay, based on his novel of the same name, is a meek attempt at rehashing the revolutionary uprising and political retribution seen in countless other historical/fictional works. While the plot is inspired by the factual Maoist insurgency in Peru (known as the Shining Path), The Dancer Upstairs fails to shine and tends to focus more on the insignificant rather than the significant. Simply put, there isn’t enough meat to consume a running time with worthwhile scenes.
In an unnamed Latin American city, political mayhem ensues with a mysterious President Ezequiel at the helm. Detective Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) gets assigned the task of sifting through crime scene after crime scene of President Ezequiel’s rebel movement and bringing this “Fourth Flame of Communism” to justice. In the process, dead canines, bloodied bodies, and explosion wreckage serve as visual promotion of Ezequiel’s agenda.
Throughout the terrorism, Rejas meets with his daughter’s ballet teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante). Despite being married, Rejas chooses to convene with Yolanda on repeated occasions. Though their affair initially seems innocent, it begins to build momentum and ends up serving all involved more bad than good.
Before solely assigning the blame on the source material, consider that first-time actor-turned-director/producer John Malkovich pumps the pace of a tortoise into the picture. Be it out of the gate and down the stretch, Malkovich’s lackadaisical handling and simultaneous dedication to detail hampers the overall viewing experience and leads to more viewer unease than pleasure. In the end, this forces the audience to marinate in random brutal violence and an underdeveloped love story concurrently.
For example, after seeing dead dogs hung from lampposts and witnessing a montage of deaths (including someone shoving a stick of dynamite up a dog’s rear end and having it run into a crowd before exploding), we watch Rejas kindle an affair with Yolanda. In addition, after observing an extra creepy pas de deux (that results in members of the performance audience being pulled on stage only to be shot point blank), we observe Rejas suddenly trot naked through a stream and set up camp by himself in the woods. Then, after his personal retreat, Rejas swiftly visits Yolanda on her birthday, watches her dance, gives her a candle, and abruptly leaves. Although Malkovich inherits a sloppy script, keep in mind that he struggles between calling attention to minute details and juxtaposing revolution and lust.
Conversely, Javier Bardem is perfect — mustache and all. He oozes with professionalism and makes it obvious that he will become a Hollywood megastar in the years to come. Likewise, Yolanda balances Bardem and manages the female lead without a hitch. In fact, the pair shares an impressionable scene in a restaurant, where they judge the characters of the wall portraits and realize that “half of the people we meet, we get wrong.” Foreshadowing anyone?
Regardless, by the time the end credits roll, you’ll have had enough “long live President Ezequiel,” enough Latin music, and enough of awkward quotes like “Should I ask him if he wants to borrow my penis?” While The Dancer Upstairs isn’t as macabre as some of its “action” sequences and as discomfited as its writing, it’s still unworthy of any celebratory fireworks. In the grand scheme of things, The Dancer Upstairs doesn’t burn as bright as a flashlight, a Roman candle, or a book of matches. Instead, it mimics the dimness of a jar of fireflies.