One weekend, two early ’80s remakes. But where The Thing pays homage to its predecessor, Footloose provides an object lesson in how to mangle a classic. In a world where there is Netflix there is no reason whatsoever to see this new version instead of the 1984 original.
There’s an old joke that says Baptists are against having sex standing up, because that might lead to dancing. And dancing will inevitably lead to drinking and drugs and recklessness, or so says Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), the local minister in Bomont, Georgia. His son, Bobby was killed in a car accident on the way back from a party three years ago along with four other high school seniors, and since then the town of Bomont has cracked down with a curfew and a ban on public dancing, much to the consternation of the town’s teenagers, including his Shaw’s daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough). But then comes Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) rolling into town to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother’s death. He grew up in Boston as a dancer and a gymnast, and he’s not about to stop now.
The whole story is a classic tale of youthful rebellion and the next generation wresting their place from the grip of the current one. Even the original film was written in such broad strokes that I never would have picked it out as an exemplar of taste, subtlety, and self-restraint. And yet writer-director Craig Brewer doesn’t seem to be able to do subtle; Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan were many things, but subtle was not among them. In those movies it may have worked, but with Footloose it just looks garish and cheap when the contrast gets turned up to eleven.
Let’s start with the accident itself. Dean Pitchford’s original script kept it the subject of hushed murmurs, letting us hear of it the way Ren does. Brewer, on the other hand, isn’t going to pass up a chance to plow a sedan into a tractor-trailer in the first five minutes. And then there’s Ariel’s boyfriend, who can’t just be another student but must now be a lecherous dirt-track driver in his mid-20s and still seducing high school girls. Oh yeah, and let’s make sure to throw in race cars — all the kids love NASCAR, right? — and turn the tractor race into a demolition derby with school buses.
The talent also suffers in the update. I’ve watched a lot of Kevin Bacon, and Wormald is no Kevin Bacon. Lori Singer was coming off of Fame when she played Ariel, and Hough is coming off of being a human prop on Dancing With the Stars. Quaid is as solid as ever, but Lithgow already nailed it. And as much as I’ve loved Andie MacDowell since her Brat Pack days, she can’t hold a candle to Dianne Wiest’s performance as Ariel’s mother. Really the only performance I thought measured up was Miles Teller as Ren’s new friend Willard (Chris Penn in the original).
But what suffers the most in the new, outsized approach is the central story. Where the original Bomont was overly cautious and risk-averse, it basically had a good heart. The new Bomont is a police state run by bullies. The new Shaw is still reacting to the death of his son, but he goes all the way into a xenophobic Know-Nothingism. Notably cut from the original is a key scene where Lithgow’s Shaw reacts in shock to see that some have run with his momentum all the way to burning books.
Those same books are part and parcel of the original Ariel’s rebellion; they’re stacked everywhere in the secret teen hangout she shows Ren. And maybe that’s the key. Maybe it isn’t Brewer’s fault after all. Maybe the idea of kids picking up a book on their own is actually the more outlandish notion thirty years on, and the only way to connect anything to a modern audience is to be that much bigger and louder and garish and cheap. It certainly seems to work for Michael Bay, but I want no part of that audience.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.