Strong performances bolster the story of Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle), a baker still mourning his wife's death when he comes to the aid of a mortally injured motorist (John Goodman). Fearful he may not be able to fulfill an oath he made four decades prior, the man implores Frank to take his place and seek out the childhood sweetheart he promised to meet at a specified time and place in the new millennium. The place, of course, is the titular dance and charm school where, as children, they experienced the first rumblings of childhood romance. And it is there, in the present day, that Frank will rediscover love and overcome his grief through the magic of dance and the sad charms of a young woman named Meredith (Marisa Tomei).
Miller's understandably sentimental choice to illustrate Goodman's character's flashbacks with footage from the original short film is one of the picture's more unfortunate shortcomings -- sweet as they are on their own, these segments are notably less polished and sophisticated than the rest of the movie, lessening its effectiveness whenever it so detours. The film also fumbles a bit to gets it various threads aligned -- the nonlinear fashion in which Miller weaves the past and present Charm School stories with the Carlyle/Goodman material doesn't really start to feel organic until nearly halfway through. But once audiences orient themselves to the film's unorthodox rhythms, there's little doubt they'll be swept away by the characters and their relationships. Carlyle and Tomei have never been better, leading off an equally impressive supporting cast that includes, in addition to Goodman, the likes of Mary Steenburgen, Donnie Wahlberg, Ernie Hudson, Sean Astin, Adam Arkin, Sonia Braga and David Paymer, among others.
Miller and his producer/co-writer wife, Jody Savin, reportedly tapped their home equity to make this exceedingly personal film, a gutsy risk for a director whose career to date has been largely restricted to the safe confines of episodic television and mainstream studio films like "Houseguest." The payoff, however, is substantial, for while "Marilyn Hotchkiss" is far from perfect, it conveys, in no uncertain terms, the importance of risk-taking as an essential part of life's journey. That the film was itself borne out of risk invests its message with an honesty and an authenticity more than sufficient to offset its flaws. Starring Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Ernie Hudson, Donnie Wahlberg, John Goodman and Sean Astin. Directed by Randall Miller. Written by Randall Miller and Jody Savin. Produced by Jody Savin, Morris Ruskin and Eileen Craft. A Goldwyn release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature situations and language. Running time: 103 min