Film Review: Musical Chairs

Would-be ‘triumph of the human spirit’ saga set among wheelchair-bound dancers blows it through shallow concept and characterizations.

Like Moira Shearer’s immortal Vicky Paige in Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, Armando (E.J. Bonilla) in Musical Chairs was born to dance. He’s the despair of his mother (Priscilla Lopez), who wants nothing more than for him to marry neighborhood girl Rosa (Angelic Zambrana) and settle down into the family restaurant business. But Armando haunts the dance studio where his secretly idolized Mia (Leah Pipes) teaches, and, when she is paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident, spearheads her rehabilitation and renewed joy in dancing by starting wheelchair dance lessons at her rehab facility. It all ends, not so surprisingly, with the big competition involving cadres of those who cannot walk kicking up their heels as best they can.

Susan Seidelman gives this massively corny tale some authentic New York flavor, unsurprising given her Desperately Seeking Susan roots, but that’s about all that can really be said for this very thin conceit that ladles on the glossy uplift. The characters of Marty Madden’s screenplay are uninterestingly 100% cardboard, especially Armando’s motley crew of a dance class, which include a disabled military vet (Morgan Spector), your requisite mouthy macho jerk (Auti Angel), and your even more requisite sassy black transvestite (Laverne Cox). Although one yearns to side with the angels and cheer these wheelchair-bound heroes on, there is no overlooking the fact that the dances they do—as presented here—are not exactly earth-shakers. Earthbound would seem to be the operative word, for in place of lower limb action, the film’s choreographer hasn’t supplied any mesmerizing upper-body moves or flashy wheelchair maneuvers that pop to delight the eye. Even the dancers’ varying, doubtlessly arduous processes in learning to move are given short shrift, so there is little real sense of the rewards of striving.

Bonilla is attractive and has a nice, brash energy, but Pipes is too sweetly bland, monotonously the sufferer. Lopez brings her always-welcome sass to her supporting role, and there are some colorful incidental characters, like a very droll Marilyn Sokol, who momentarily enlivens the film with her aggressive partnering of hunky Bonilla.