I sound like such a curmudgeon saying shit like, “Well, geez, movies were just better in the 80s.” Worse, I sound like an old-fart curmudegeon. Worser still, at this very moment I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon dancing and John Lithgow going all fire-and-brimstone in 1984’s Footloose, which had previously been in the We Love It But We All Generally Agree This Is A Guilty Pleasure Piece of Junk pile. Yet now, with the arrival of this pointless remake, it suddenly looks like a classic for the ages instead of the goofy ridiculous fun that it was.
I wish I could say I didn’t know why anyone would bother xeroxing a nearly 30-year-old movie, but I do know why. Director Craig Brewer made Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, and whatever you think of those movies, they were unique. They told stories we hadn’t seen before: a street pimp wants to be a hip-hop star; a black man chains up a white woman to save her from her own wickedness. But that kind of thing is just too risky. Who wants to see a movie that we’re not sure how it will end? We might have to think about it along the way, and that’s simply too much damn work.
It’s like we have, as a culture, turned into four-year-olds who want to watch nothing but the same Blue’s Clues DVD over and over again, so that we may be reassured that all is fine and right and predictable and comforting with the world.
Hustle got Oscar love. But Moan didn’t even come close to earning back its modest production budget. So Brewer, apparently assuming that working in Hollywood is a good thing, is reduced to making paint-by-numbers studio movies. But we’re all a little bit smarter than toddlers, so Hollywood couldn’t just rerelease the 1984 Footloose, which it certainly could have done and we’d barely notice the difference. No: We need the illusion of novelty, with none of the mess or fuss.
So it’s probably a feature, not a bug, that Brewer didn’t find one damn actual, you know, reason to remake this story. Options were there, but to take advantage of them might accidentally have put a thought in someone’s head, and then where would we be?
Dancing is still banned, because Jesus don’t like it or something, in the podunk redneck town of Bomont — which is now in the American South instead of the American West — when high-school senior Ren McCormack arrives from the big city — now Boston instead of Chicago — and decides to dance anyway. These slight changes — using the burnt-umber crayon instead of the brown one — appear to be the extent of whatever earned Brewer the screenplay credit he has here. Coloring outside the lines would not be tolerated, however, so Brewer hasn’t bothered to inject any contemporary urgency into his alleged 2011 film. It was weird and ludicrous and sorta quaint in 1984 that a preacher — then John Lithgow, now Dennis Quaid (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Legion) — might hold such sway over a town that he gets the force of law behind his anti-fun-naughtiness sermons, so it was easy to dismiss it as a preposterous plot conceit. Today, though, with Jesus-y types on the national scene trying to impose their churchiness on a large scale and not getting laughed into the loony bin over it, it’s much more serious business. Brewer can’t cope with that, however — too much politics is too thinky — but he can’t ignore it, either, because he is merely xeroxing. So whenever anyone on screen gets too close to even a smidgen of actual substance that might actually be affecting some of the viewers in real life, the movie runs screaming in the other direction from it, like a small child running from a big scary spider in the bathtub.
Brewer may not deserve his directing credit, either: it’s shameful how much of the visuals are openly lifted from 1984 director Herbert Ross. Most embarrassing is the “Rage! The Dance” sequence, in which Ren must express his frustration with small-town smallmindedness via the forbidden boogie. The paint-by-numbers outline dictates that this is the part of the movie where Kevin Bacon– er, Ren runs around a warehouse waving his arms and getting all sexy-sweaty and ripping his shirt off, so here it is. The whole movie is stilted and hamfisted, like it’s constantly looking off to the side to ensure that it’s keeping time with Kevin Bacon, but this sequence is absolutely cringe-inducing.
It doesn’t help that relative newcomers Kenny Wormald as Ren and Julianne Hough as Ariel, the bad-girl daughter of the preacher, are simply awful actors. They can dance, I’m happy to concede, but there’s nowhere near enough dancing in this dancing movie for their talent there to distract us from their inability to convincingly represent human beings the rest of the time.
You want a great movie with dancing and frustrated high-school kids? Rent Grease. If movies were better in the 80s, they were better still in the 70s. Amirite?