Strictly Ballroom is so (intentionally) synthetic and weightless that it would be an overstatement to call the movie cotton candy: It’s cotton candy spun from NutraSweet. Originally a stage musical in Sydney, this Australian production features ballroom dancing as delirious camp — a kitschy parody of romantic ardor. The bespangled ballroom dancers we see are like strapping mannequins come to life. Tall and muscular, with plastic grins and hair so blond it’s almost terrifying, the women, in their sci-fi midriff-baring dresses, could be alien vamps from Barbarella; the men whirling them around the dance floor are like waxy gigolos. Is this flamboyant display supposed to collapse us into giggles? Yes and no. Strictly Ballroom is the dance-film equivalent of a female impersonator: The movie is absurd and sincere at the same time — it offers an insolent facsimile of grand passion.
Beneath the stylized glitz, though, Strictly Ballroom offers up some very familiar goods. The film resurrects — with a knowing wink — the shamelessly histrionic, what-I-did-for-love romanticism of Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. The hero, a brilliant young dancer named Scott (Paul Mercurio), longs to rebel and perform his own steps in competition, even though such creative maneuvers are forbidden by the Australian Dance Federation. Scott hooks up with Fran (Tara Morice), a shy, inexperienced dancer of Spanish descent — she’s a wallflower waiting to bloom — and together they devise a flamenco-flavored routine. But will Scott find the courage to perform it at the Pan Pacific tournament? Not unless he crawls out from under the thumb of his castrating mother (Pat Thomson), who is served up through wide-angle lenses for maximum cartoon grotesquerie. (In this movie, everyone middle-aged is made to look like an evil parent out of a Twisted Sister video.)
The tinsel-thin predictability of Strictly Ballroom is meant to be part of its charm: Why, it’s just a fairy tale! To me, though, Flashdance was a lot more fun — and not just because I prefer Giorgio Moroder’s rhapsodic synth-pop to ”The Blue Danube.” Bouncy and chic as Strictly Ballroom is, there’s something a little tiresome about a movie that makes such a strenuous point of not taking itself seriously. With its cutesy-poo, is-it-schlock-or-is-it-camp? gaudiness, the film puts quotation marks around ’80s clichés and then ends up wallowing in them anyway. It’s a low-rent crowd-pleaser the ”sophisticated” audience can enjoy without feeling terminally déclassé. B-