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Imagine, if you will, a more realistic version of Dirty Dancing that strips away the fairy tale contrivances that the movie made us believe thanks to the charisma of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.
In this version, we meet nerdy, awkward Baby who has a summertime fling with a dance instructor. But this isn’t a fairy tale and Baby, who has never taken an interest in dancing before, doesn’t prove to be a lithe, coordinated natural hoofer and she doesn’t have incendiary chemistry with her instructor. She tries hard and sometimes gets a few of the steps, and the canoodling is more out of boredom than anything else. Nothing really materializes from her lessons other than admirable effort and a talent show number that impresses the other families at their Catskills resort because they have really low standards.
AIR DATE May 24, 2017
At some point, the instructor stands up to Baby’s authoritarian father and says “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” but it isn’t some iconoclastic moment because it’s an awful line of dialogue capable of being redeemed by Patrick Swayze and nobody else.
Then everybody parts ways. “Summer fling, don’t mean a thing,” as a different show taught us.
That version doesn’t become an enduring sensation, doesn’t give us a Havana-set sequel nobody cared about and doesn’t get remade 30 years later on ABC. But we believe it and there’s something admirable in that, right?
To that end, I wish to praise Abigail Breslin’s lead performance in the ABC remake of Dirty Dancing that nobody asked for and nobody is likely to truly enjoy. The Little Miss Sunshine Oscar nominee gives a sweet, uncomfortable and often touching turn that I think captures exactly what it would have truly looked like if an uncoordinated, bookish teenager in 1963 followed her hormones into the arms of a studly dancer and spent a week or two of lessons trying to learn the mambo. Jennifer Grey may have made a great Baby, but with her theatrical DNA, she was cheating. Breslin isn’t. You watch ABC’s Dirty Dancing and never think for a second that she’s an overqualified ringer doing the choreography. You watch Baby and think, “Well, it’s admirable that she’s trying and there’s something progressive, if not always artistic, in that effort.” Viewers expecting Grey will probably be harsh on Breslin and that seems wrong to me. I think Breslin is perfectly engaged with a different take on the character, it just happens that nobody else in this new Dirty Dancing has been told to change the story around her.
Premiering Wednesday, May 24, and directed blandly by Wayne Blair (the far superior The Sapphires), ABC’s Dirty Dancing is beat-for-beat identical when it comes to the main storyline, often shot-for-shot and movement-by-movement identical. Baby Houseman, bubbly sister Lisa (Sarah Hyland) and parents Marjorie (Debra Messing) and Jake (Bruce Greenwood) go up to Kellerman’s Resort for a Catskills summer retreat that will make very little sense to a younger generation because somewhere in the nostalgia for an ‘80s nostalgic take on the ‘60s, any cultural context has been lost. The original movie knew very well that this was a particularly Jewish experience that the Kellermans and their cohorts were having, the remake doesn’t especially care, though at least everybody still has Jewish last names. A couple 1963 cultural signposts have been added, but not well.
Anyway, once they’re at Kellerman’s, Baby watches Johnny Castle (Colt Prattes) and Penny (Nicole Scherzinger) dance one night and she basically goes through spontaneous belated puberty. Her new curiosity for dancing threatens her relationship with her dad, a successful surgeon who hopes Baby will follow in his footsteps.
ABC’s Dirty Dancing will air in a three-hour slot. Watched without commercials, it has a running time of 130 minutes, a whopping and uncalled-for 30 minutes longer than the original. What, pray tell, does adapting writer Jessica Sharzer deliver with all of that extra time? Well, there’s a little more depth to Ma and Pa Houseman’s slightly estranged marriage, the sort of thing you have to add if you want to woo actors like Messing and Greenwood. There’s a slight variation to the dynamic with Johnny and “bungalow bunny” Vivian (Katey Sagal). And there’s a bookending device that contributes only meta confusion — Baby is attending a musical version of Dirty Dancing on Broadway in 1975 — and wholly unintentional laughs at the end. Otherwise, any twists or revisions are cosmetic and make things worse.
Were it just a straightforward needless remake, that would probably be bad enough, but the alleged inspiration behind the entire endeavor was to make Dirty Dancing into a musical. Kinda. Basically, ABC stressed out that NBC and Fox were getting lots of publicity out of their live and canned musicals and a dart thrown at available properties hit this one.
I can’t exactly explain any of the motivations behind when characters onscreen are singing the period songs from the soundtrack to the original movie and when we’re just being treated to truly subpar covers of the new hit songs from the movie. At least if Scherzinger and Breslin are singing a mediocre version of “Whole Lotta Shakin‘ Going On” I get why it’s happening, but the excruciatingly thin, poppy covers of “Hungry Eyes” and “She’s Like the Wind” from contemporary artists come with no such justification. Even when the covers of the songs are just fine and are given context within scenes — Sagal does an OK take on “Fever” and Messing and Greenwood both sing “They Can’t Take That Away” separately — I was forced to wonder who thought this was the correct way to improve upon Dirty Dancing, much less update Dirty Dancing for a 2017 audience. It’s like somebody watched the lip-synching “Hey Baby” scene from the original and said, “Let’s do this same gimmick over and over and over again,” but lost what was so playful and sexy about that scene through the repetition.
[NOTE/UPDATE: I know (but may have forgotten) there was/is a Dirty Dancing jukebox musical that has toured the world and generally made money and been critically derided at every stop. I have no idea if this is the exact form of said jukebox musical. If it is, it takes some of the blame away from the writer, but not anything else.]
Whatever the original movie is, it’s not Formal Dancing or Time Period Appropriate Dancing. The movie is sexy. ABC’s version is not. Even scenes that copy the movie without reservation, like Baby’s watermelon-carting arrival at the Kellerman’s after-hours staff shindig, have put any sultriness on ice.
Much of that, I’m afraid, falls on newcomer Prattes, whose dancing is utterly respectable and whose ripped abs are surely beyond reproach, but at no point does he generate any heat with either of his dancing partners. When Cynthia Rhodes and Swayze dance at the start of the original, it’s animalistic. You imagine every person at Kellerman’s is going to go back to their bungalow and immediately have sex after watching them. When Scherzinger and Prattes do it, you wait patiently to see if Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli are going to give them a 7 or an 8. It’s proficient, but nothing else. Then, when Swayze and Grey rehearse, every second is steamy foreplay. When Prattes and Breslin rehearse, I mostly worried that they needed more work before they were ready to go public. When he isn’t dancing, Prattes is a limited actor and, as I’ve already hinted, his embarrassing delivery of “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” is a reminder that a lot of the raw materials in the original are pretty shoddy when handled improperly.
Because of all of the neutered reproducing of formerly iconic moments, any appeal to ABC’s Dirty Dancing comes from the fleeting rays of sincerity. That’s why I liked Breslin’s performance. It’s why I respected Greenwood’s work, even though he has played variations on this sort of WASPy, disapproving father before. I liked the casting of Tony Roberts as Max Kellerman, not that it’s much of a part. I didn’t buy the expanded arc for Messing’s character at all, but she plays it decently.
At this point, really once I get past my praise for Breslin and Greenwood, I’m grasping at straws. I don’t think the feature Dirty Dancing is some cinematic masterpiece. Thirty years after its premiere, it’s a well-executed time capsule that was, itself, a well-executed time capsule. If your only reason to remake it is to further entomb it in nostalgia, without interpretation or imagination, it probably shouldn’t have been done at all.
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Colt Prattes, Debra Messing, Bruce Greenwood, Nicole Scherzinger, Sarah Hyland, Tony Roberts, Katey Sagal, Billy Dee Williams.
Director: Wayne Blair
Writer: Jessica Sharzer
Airs Wednesday, May 24, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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