Stepping Out (1991)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.   

USA, 1991.  Paramount Pictures.  Screenplay by Richard Harris, based on his play.  Cinematography by Alan Hume.  Produced by Lewis Gilbert.  Music by Peter Matz.  Production Design by Alicia Keywan.  Costume Design by Candy Paterson.  Film Editing by Humphrey Dixon

Richard Harris’ community theatre favourite gets its shot at the big screen, and the results are the best that your grandmother’s money can buy.  Liza Minnelli plays a performer whose biggest dreams are behind her, surviving by playing gigs in dive bars and teaching a tap dance class to a group of questionably talented beginners.  When the snobby owner of a swanky dance school (played with unapologetic venom by Nora Dunn) asks her to take part in a major charity event that will feature local talent, Minnelli jumps at the chance and signs her whole class up, not realizing that pulling her group together will be something along the lines of inspiring soldiers to enter battle.  In an attempt to make the uncomplicated play’s setting feel more cinematic, Harris has added scenes and characters that should accomplish the task of not letting it feel stagy, and yet it does, for what the new locations don’t overcome is the dinner-theatre quality dialogue and characters.  Wonderful actors like Andrea Martin, Sheila McCarthy and, best of them all, Ellen Greene, can do nothing for the awkward stereotypes that can perhaps be enjoyed on an intimate stage, the Shy Old Maid type, the Sassy Black Friend, the Mouthy Jewish Broad, etc, but are stale on film, while as accomplished a performer as Bill Irwin performs his character’s initial missteps and errors like he’s playing Ray Bolger.  Its sweet innocence helps smooth over the fact that these people are never real enough for you to care about their success, but what really makes this one go down easy is the fact that Minnelli is stellar in the lead.  Her delivery of even the worst contrivances always feels fresh and real, and she dazzles as much with her singing and dancing as she does her good-natured laugh and genuine warmth.

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