Razzle Dazzle

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SYDNEY -- The affection with which the breezy Australian mockumentary "Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance" tweaks the twinkle-toed denizens of the competitive dance scene makes it easy to like. Sure, there are exuberant bursts of "Mickey" and "Footloose" and plenty of jazz hands, which almost make fun of themselves. But mostly the humor is understated and wry, contrasting nicely with the exhibitionist antics of its Bedazzler-worshiping targets.

This gently mocking approach, which Christopher Guest applied so deftly to the folkie satire "A Mighty Wind," allows an often laugh-out-loud sendup to also function as a conventional let's-put-on-a-show crowd-pleaser.

Energetic dance routines choreographed by John O'Connell ("Strictly Ballroom," "Moulin Rouge") and performed by a cute cast of preteen hoofers up the feel-good factor. "Razzle Dazzle" should prove a hit with Australian families when it opens locally March 15. Overseas prospects also are good, with the runaway success of "The Office" in Britain and its offshoot in the U.S. proving that there's a large audience for this type of deadpan, slightly surreal humor. (Comic writer Robin Ince, a longtime collaborator of "The Office" creator Ricky Gervais, co-wrote the script.)

Originally a parody of pushy stage mothers, "Razzle Dazzle" evolved into a comic examination of the do-or-die intensity surrounding kids' dance competitions, with the spotlight firmly on the adults. They mostly behave appallingly -- bribing judges, foisting nose jobs on their offspring, kidnapping professional ring-ins -- while the poor kids, all gangly limbs and braces, aim simply and sensibly to do their best.

British actor Ben Miller has the best lines as the determinedly cheery Mr. Jonathon, head of Mr. Jonathon's Dance Academy, and his poker-faced delivery of crazy assertions will be familiar to fans of "The Office."

Winning the Sanosafe Troupe Spectacular, the pinnacle of dance contests, means a lot to Mr. Jonathon. Not only would it allow him to triumph over Miss Elizabeth (Jane Hall), a longtime rival whose ultra-conservative style is routinely rewarded by the judges, it also would validate his unorthodox approach to dance.

Mr. Jonathon is, in the words of his rival, a "cause slut," obsessed with using his routines to tackle social issues, such as global warming, skin cancer and dolphins in tuna nets. He feels he's onto a winner with his piece about the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban, but parental interference will prove more of a challenge than the skill of his dancers.

With the exception of Justine (Kerry Armstrong), an alarmingly single-minded stage mom who tortures her poor daughter Tenille (Shayni Notelovitz) in a quest for vicarious glory, most of the daffy characters stop short of caricature.

But they're not short on quirks. Mr. Jonathon's officious offsider Barbara (Denise Roberts) will only play foster parent to children with rhythm. The troupe's costume designer Marianne (Tara Morice, "Strictly Ballroom") dresses dramatically in goth-inspired creations but never says a word.

The free-spirited and very pregnant Paulette (a wonderfully warm Nadine Garner), who drives daughter Grace (Clancy Ryan) nuts with her chronic tardiness, is the most "normal" of the stage moms. But she is struggling to remain serene about her TV-handyman husband running off with a male co-star. It's all absurd but vaguely plausible and Ashton knows exactly when to pull back.

Tucked in among the emotional pyrotechnics and onstage pizzazz is a scene such as the one in which the normally silent Marianne, sewing costumes with Mr. Jonathon and Paulette, spontaneously breaks into a lovely rendition of Spandau Ballet's "Gold." It's a showstopper.

Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance
Palace Films, Wild Eddie Prods.

Credits:
Director: Darren Ashton
Screenwriters: Carolyn Wilson, Robin Ince
Producers: Jodi Matterson, Andrena Finlay
Executive producer: Al Clark
Director of photography: Garry Phillips
Production designer: Karen Harborow
Music: Roger Mason
Costume designer: Ariane Weiss
Editors: Julieanne Deruvo, Philip Horn

Cast:
Justine: Kerry Armstrong
Mr. Jonathon: Ben Miller
Paulette: Nadine Garner
Barbara: Denise Roberts
Marianne: Tara Morice
Miss Elizabeth: Jane Hall

No MPAA rating, running time 92 minutes.

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