Independent filmmaker Susan Seidelman’s sentiment is in the right place, even though she never gets into the groove with this schmaltzy tale about disabled dancers.
Energetic Armando (E.J. Bonilla) was born to dance. Despite the efforts of his meddling mother, Isabella (Priscilla Lopez), to have him take over the family restaurant business in the Bronx and marry their nice Puerto Rican neighbor, Rosa (Angelic Zambrana), Armando would rather move to the music. That’s why he hangs out, working as a janitor/substitute teacher, at the dance studio where his adored WASPy Mia (Leah Pipes) is an instructor. And when she’s paralyzed from the waist down after a traumatic automobile accident, he stays by her side, not only starting an evening wheelchair ballroom dancing program on the basketball court at her rehab center but also working with Mia to get her ready to compete in New York’s first wheelchair ballroom dancing tournament – to be held in only three months.
Best known for “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Boynton Beach Club,” Susan Seidelman does her best with the predictably melodramatic plot concocted by screenwriter Marty Madden. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are all too trite and stereotypical. There’s the obnoxious Iraqi War veteran Kenny (Morgan Spencer), the angry Goth girl Nikki (Auti Angel), and Chantelle (Laverne Cox), the sassy transsexual who becomes romantically involved with Wilfredo (Nelson P. Landrieu), one of Armando’s older Latino relatives.
Jose Edgar Osorio’s choreography is not only admirable but evocative of classic dance routines in Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly musicals.
Problem is: the superficial narrative contains distressing misinformation. While some paralyzed people can, indeed, become adroit in physical activities like ballroom dancing, along with basketball and other sports, but – in order to master that kind of control of their bodies – they have to spend months, perhaps years in grueling rehabilitation, not 90 days. Another misguided idea is that handicapped women cannot bear children; in many cases, they can – and do.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Musical Chairs” is a simpatico if shallow 6, struggling to be a life-affirming, feel-good fantasy.