Review: Dirty Dancing (2017)

The original “Dirty Dancing” from 1987 was a remarkable blend of dancing, music, and story. It was eye-catching, sassy, and despite glaring anachronisms (such as the discrepancy between the film’s soundtrack and the time period setting), appropriate for all contemporary audiences.  Unfortunately, Hollywood seems to have “gone off on a limb” with remakes during the past 15 or so years. Instead of retelling familiar stories with the intention of bring new, fresh interpretations to the screen, producers and writers have concocted point-blank failures that have attracted more negative than positive attention, their current marketing strategy.  I’ve seen one remake after another generate terrible reviews from critics and viewers alike, both complaining about the same issue: “these new versions have no soul.” That may be true overall, but that doesn’t mean that some of these films can’t present new perspectives.

The 2017 “Dirty Dancing” remake seems to be such a maligned production, with fans of the original determined to hate it and a small fraction of the modern audience wondering why. No remake can ever be up to par with its parent source. Although retellings should aim to surpass, not be up to standard, we all know that’s not how it works regarding criticism or general enjoyment.  I am coming from both sides of the track, so to speak. I enjoy the original Dirty Dancing and consider it a film I can easily rewatch. However, I also think that despite being heavily flawed and misconceived, the new interpretation of Dirty Dancing still has certain elements in its favor.

Even though no one can ever replicate Patrick Swayze’s unique charm and style, Colt Prattes was a credible Johnny. His recreation of the character at times was lost, as if he didn’t know if Johnny was a bad boy gone wrong or on the path to redemption — but the fact that his Johnny was much younger and less mature (and dare I say, more realistic) than Swayze’s balanced out his performance. As a result, his love story with Baby seemed more likely.  In contrast, Abigail Breslin was a contradictory display of emotion and subtlety. She tried to make her version of Baby more outspoken, intelligent, feministic. She tried so hard that she made her emotional scenes almost laughable. During the famous love scene, for example, her delivery of her lines is monotone and bland. Prattes was visibly reaching out for that emotional connection, but Breslin kept going regardless, clueless as to how pivotal those moments are in the story. Then, during other scenes when she doesn’t have to make eye contact with anyone, she reminded me of the talented child actress she once was, genuine and straightforward and memorable. Another major issue was her dancing. I think some reviewers, myself included, would not have been so incredulous about her being overweight for this role if her dancing was better. She pulled off Baby’s initial ignorance so well only because her flexibility and even her attitude stayed at the same level from start to finish. Baby became a good dancer by the end of the movie — her steps and gestures were fluid instead of awkward. Breslin didn’t show us that natural transition.  Her dancing was passable at best, with most scenes focused on Johnny’s moves instead.

Moreover, I was disappointed by the film’s passive dancing altogether. When I compared the 1987 dancing to this low energy imitation, I could see the difference immediately. The original makes you want to get up and move, while this new version is cringeworthy. None of the cast was an impressive dancer, especially not for a film centered on dancing.  Adding duets and solos to the mix was a recipe for disaster. Who cared if Baby’s mother and father could play the piano and sing? I was bored. I like musicals, but this film was not a musical in any sense of the word and put the term to shame. Last but not least, the famous ending scene was the worst delivered scene of the entire movie. Swayze’s reappearance at the conclusion of the original was one of its highlights and most energetic scenes.  This adaptation seemed to have forgotten all about its source material at this point and leapt off a cliff with stiff acting and cheap dancing.  Despite loud criticism for the unneeded, additional ending that destroys any integrity the retelling had left, it was better than the final dance scene. Given the positive open ending of the 1987 version, I was surprised that this new version thought closure was necessary — especially negative closure that exasperated the fans who watched it. First rule of storytelling: everyone wants a happy ending, whether it’s true or not.

The extra backstories for Johnny and Baby’s parents (where was Penny’s?) were welcome, as was Neil being an open-minded, well-read feminist, not a jerk. Robbie’s involvement was downplayed until the very end and kept me guessing when his villainy would be revealed, and Baby’s father was more actively involved in the plot, helping me to better understand his character. I also noticed that sexual chemistry took second place to Baby’s growing friendship with and respect for Johnny and vice versa.  Though Breslin failed on most counts to be a strong leading lady in this movie, she and Prattes actually had decent chemistry for a “young first love” trope in spite of the original’s insurmountable fireworks.  There were scenes that had me smiling, including Penny teaching Baby not to lead but follow.

This remake was by all means a teen version of “Dirty Dancing.” I wish the writers had changed the time setting as well to reflect modern times like they updated the soundtrack with modern covers, but it doesn’t look like they were aiming for creativity in all aspects of the film. This was its main flaw. It wasn’t great like the adult version we remember, but it still expanded on story details and plot threads like any good fanfiction would.

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