Dirty Dancing — the 1987 sleeper hit that convinced a generation that true love involves practicing the lift in a lake and sexy lip-synching to Mickey & Sylvia — is, technically, not a great movie. It’s predictable, and the dialogue is stilted at times, and its portrait of “nice” privileged people (the Housemans) versus evil richies (Robbie the waiter) versus “the lower class” (the dancers at Kellerman’s) lacks nuance, although that was true about pretty much every movie released in the ’80s.
It is, however, an irresistible, fun, eminently rewatchable film. I have no idea how many times I’ve seen Dirty Dancing (40? 50? 802?). I keep coming back to it not only because of Patrick Swayze’s swiveling hips (though they help) or because, for a while there, it was on cable every 15 minutes (that helped, too). What elevates Dirty Dancing and makes it a dance-movie classic is its undeniable energy. Swayze and co-star Jennifer Grey famously didn’t always get along, but they had tremendous chemistry and played their characters, Johnny Castle and Baby Houseman, with fire and passion. The dance scenes — from the first bump and grind to “Love Man” by Otis Redding to the rehearsal montage set to “Hungry Eyes” — crackle, seduce, and often do both. If you were an impressionable teenager raised on early MTV music videos and prepared to believe that a chance watermelon-holding incident could lead to romance with Darry from The Outsiders, Dirty Dancing was the perfect movie for you.
That said, Dirty Dancing, the new TV movie remake starring Abigail Breslin that airs Wednesday night on ABC, will probably not be perfect for you, or anyone else for that matter. For starters, Breslin, who plays Baby, and newcomer Colt Prattes, daring to step into Swayze’s cha-cha-ing shoes, don’t generate anything close to the Grey-Swayze sizzle factor. Nobody’s got hungry eyes in this thing. At best, their eyes are saying, “Eh, I don’t know. I guess I could have a snack.”
Across the board, the liveliness levels stay stuck on low, perhaps because everyone involved can sense they’re going through motions previously established and perfected 30 years ago. Though there have been some additions and changes to the plot, mostly involving peripheral characters like Baby’s sister, Lisa (played here by Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland), and her parents (Debra Messing, taking over the role once occupied by Kelly Bishop, and Bruce Greenwood as the doctor patriarch originated by Jerry Orbach), Dirty Dancing 2017 is more or less a beat-for-beat retread of a more enjoyable movie. “You will have the time of your life,” it keeps insisting, “as long as you ignore the fact that these are different actors and all the great music from the original has been translated into watered-down contemporary cover songs. Now, repeat after me: You’ve NEVER felt this way before. You swear.”
To be fair, 1987’s Dirty Dancing is hardly sacrosanct material. It has been mined, remade, and reimagined in the form of a short-lived scripted series starring Melora Hardin, a stage musical, and 2004’s Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. The only reason to bring it back again, in this particular format is: (a) this year marks the movie’s 30th anniversary; (b) live and prerecorded musicals do reasonably well ratings-wise; and (c) related to b, it’s a great advertising revenue opportunity for ABC. The original Dirty Dancing is an hour and 40 minutes long. Wednesday night’s broadcast runs for three hours including commercials, with the movie itself lasting just over two hours. This thing hasn’t been expanded in order to tell a richer story. It’s been padded for more ad breaks.
The movie begins by suggesting that maybe it will depart significantly from its original source material, dropping us into New York City circa 1975, where Baby is going to see a Broadway musical called Dirty Dancing. From there, though, it goes straight to flashbacks and picks up precisely where the film does, with Baby in a car with her family in 1963, headed to vacation in the Catskills* at the Kellerman Resort. You can basically guess what happens from there: the thing with the watermelon, the dance lessons with Johnny, yadda yadda yadda, nobody puts Baby in a corner.
To its credit, the ABC production, written by Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story) and directed by Wayne Blair, who made the 2012 rise-of-a-’60s-girl-band movie The Sapphires, does not shy away from the abortion story line that was central to the plot of the original. Penny, played here by Nicole Scherzinger, still terminates her pregnancy without an assist from a proper doctor, prompting Baby’s father to get involved, assume the worst about Johnny, and put up a wall between himself and his favorite daughter. Opposite Greenwood and others, Breslin plays her more emotional scenes with genuine vulnerability. She’s a softer, more tenderhearted Baby than Grey was, which is fine in those more dramatic scenes, but ultimately doesn’t quite work for the character.
As insecure as Grey’s Baby could be, there was never any doubt that she was the smartest person in any room, even a dining hall filled with Ivy Leaguers. Breslin doesn’t project Baby’s intelligence as strongly and, more crucially, she never seems comfortable in the dancing scenes, even when we’re supposed to believe she’s finally learned how to synchronize her body to any and all grooves. The recreation of the Mickey & Sylvia “Love Is Strange” scene — so playful and sexy in the hands and bodies of Grey and Swayze — looks about as natural and exciting as an awkwardly rendered musical.ly clip.
As for Prattes, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to match Swayze in this, and maybe even unfair to expect it. Either way: He doesn’t. His character is a handsome cipher with an extremely healthy head of hair and a set of abs that would earn at least an honorable mention in a Zac Efron’s Abs look-alike contest. Prattes obviously has dancing and singing talent — he has appeared in touring and Broadway productions, including Rock of Ages — but doesn’t move with the combination of physical discipline and raw sexuality that Swayze did. When he chastises Baby for having spaghetti arms, you can’t help but notice that his pasta isn’t fully cooked either.
Ultimately, though, the biggest problem with Dirty Dancing is that it can’t settle on an identity. At times it’s practically a shot-for-shot remake; at other times, it tries to define itself as something totally new, particularly in the scenes that highlight the struggles in the marriage between Marjorie and Jake Houseman or the possibility of romance between Lisa and a young African-American musician (J. Quinton Johnson) named Marco. (By the way, if you’re expecting Dirty Dancing to say something truly meaningful about race relations, um, don’t?)
All the leads get an opportunity to croon, including Katey Sagal, who plays cougar seductress Vivian Pressman and vamps her way through a version of “Fever,” as well as Messing and Greenwood, who each solo on separate versions of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The singing, along with the choreographed nature of certain scenes like the “Do You Love Me?” party sequence, give this the feel of a staged musical, whereas other times, it plays more like the regular film that the original was.
In summary, the new Dirty Dancing is disappointing and a bit all over the place. But its biggest sin is that it’s bloated and boring. If you really want to have the time of your life, fire up the 1987 version, the one that still, after all these years, knows best how to work, work, work it out, baby.
*This piece has been corrected to reflect that Dirty Dancing takes place in the Catskills, not the Poconos.