It's a clever idea: Director Randall Miller took a short film he made 15 years ago and reused it as an extended flashback in a new feature built around it. The short, a loosely autobiographical bonbon set in 1962, introduces us to Steve, a kid just starting to outgrow his girls-are-icky stage; forced to attend the titular school, he crushes on radiant classmate Lisa.
Now Steve (John Goodman) is all grown up. Apparently he and Lisa agreed to reunite at Miss Hotchkiss' on May 5, 2005. Oh, but there's a tragic car wreck! And Steve—gasp, cough, sputter—convinces passerby Frank (Robert Carlyle) to meet Lisa in his stead. Frank, having just lost his own wife, could use a little romance, and joins the merengue-ing eccentrics (taught by Mary Steenburgen), among them an eventual love interest (Marisa Tomei).
Charm School is a likable movie, but it's all so heavy-handed—the pathos too self- important, the quirkiness too self-aware (right from the start, we're confronted with a jaunty/wistful up-tempo rendition of "Over the Rainbow" for baritone and ukulele). Scenes intercutting the original short with Steve and Frank in the ambulance (and later with Frank's ballroom adventures) mine the usual insufferable Stand by Me/The Wonder Years vein of boomer nostalgia. ("The gum in baseball cards still tasted good. Kennedy was president.") The potentially fun camp factor, the humor of the dancers' precious gentility, is soggy and out of focus. To top it off, Miller opened a bottle of Karo corn syrup mistakenly labeled "film score by Mark Adler" and dumped it over everything.
Even the casting's a little too much: The film's stuffed with your 50 favorite character actors, basically everyone this side of Charles Durning, all doing a fine job, all being good sports about being underused. The movie gives you the same sensation.