Film Review: Footloose

Utterly unnecessary, ham-fisted remake of a supposed 1980s "classic."

Never one to exhaust a reliable cash cow, the original producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, of the 1984 film Footloose have decided to remake it, even after releasing a 1998 Broadway stage adaptation. The original version was a very formulaic white-bread divertissement about a Bible-banging Southern burg which, in the wake of a car accident which killed a bunch of their teen inhabitants following a wild party, has banned dancing, to the dismay of the local kids. It managed to gain a highly devoted following among certain young, undemanding viewers and, as with so many 1980s phenomena—shoulder pads, big hair, fizzy pop hits, Ronald Reagan—has somehow attained the status of a classic (again amongst the particularly undiscerning).

This 2011 update takes the basic plotline and attempts to amp it up for a new, supposedly grittier generation, rather ignoring the fact that, even in 1984, few bought its Disney-style version of small-town life. The obscenity-strewn dialogue has become rougher and there’s a more blatant—if synthetic—try for adolescent sexual heat. If anything, what made the original work was its fresh and likeably distinctive cast: Kevin Bacon as Ren, the newcomer kid who leads the town youth in rebellion; Lori Singer as his girl Ariel, the upstart daughter of the moralizing preacher Shaw (John Lithgow) who bans steppin’; his sweetly enabling wife, Vi (Dianne Wiest), the late Chris Penn as Ren’s dance-challenged buddy Willard, and even a spunky young Sarah Jessica Parker.

Here, with the exception of Miles Teller, who was that miserable kid in Rabbit Hole and plays his opposite number here, sunny Willard, with authentically sweet good-ole-boy flavor, the new cast isn’t a patch on the original, and seriously prevents the film from sneaking into your heart as it so yearns to do. And, for all the “modernizations” for a new, hopefully more mixed audience, it’s still awfully freaking white, with ethnic characters relegated to the periphery. What we do have is a risibly serious, agonizingly slow Dennis Quaid as Shaw (who almost seems mentally challenged at moments) and Andie McDowell, simpering as Vi. As Ren, Kenny Wormald has an annoyingly shaky Boston accent, is a proficient but unexciting dancer and, to the probable annoyance of many little mall rats, isn’t even that cute, having a rather goofy mien. Former “Dancing with the Stars” regular Julianne Hough, anything but dewy as Ariel, acts like a weathered tramp of about 30, and is rather remindful of Ann-Margret, but with none of that redheaded star’s considerable charismatic verve.

Director/co-writer Craig Brewer would not seem to be the obvious choice for a musical, given his darkly edgy previous credits Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan and, sure enough, is completely lacking in that blithely magical, light-handed je ne sais quoi necessary for any good helmer of this genre. The original Footloose film at least had the benefit of smooth veteran choreographer-turned-director Herbert Ross, while Brewer seems far more interested in not one but two unnecessary, noisy, slam-bang action sequences involving a NASCAR speed track, followed by an explosive bus race, like a sop to those audience members (read: male dates) who view dancing as strictly sissy stuff. The director has a positive tin ear for dialogue, and his poor actors are called upon to deliver many a groan-inducer in the frequent sentimental moments.

When Brewer finally does get to the dancing, the choreography by Jamal Sims features a lot of unappealing, torturous crunking movements, predictably chopped to bits by the editing (a sin shared with the original Footloose, but to a somewhat lesser degree there). The famously ridiculous “angry dance” Ren indulges in when small-town repression proves too much to bear—Billy Elliot was also blighted by one—is unfortunately reprised here, and merely comes across as a nonsensical, show-offy snit. The film’s one moment of charm is, ironically, the same highpoint of the original version, when Ren teaches Willard to dance. Maybe it’s the fetching song, Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” or maybe it’s Teller who, like Penn before him, is quite adorable. Both sidekicks are far more appealing than the nominal male leads of their films.