Dirty Dancing is like the epitome of the guilty pleasure movie. The dancing is good and the actors are attractive, and that’s about all the film has going for it. Luckily, you can at least laugh along with the ridiculously bad parts, but if you try to take this movie seriously you’re just going to be rolling your eyes 95% of the time.
“Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is a good girl who dreams of changing the world when she goes off to college in the fall. For the moment though, she’s just on vacation. The Housemans arrive at their resort, and are confronted with its strange preoccupation with dancing and its sharp class divisions. Dance instructors at the resort, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) are resoundingly lower class, and forbidden from fraternizing with any of the guests, whereas the Ivy leaguers working as waiters over the summer are encouraged to (there’s a very strange exposition scene outlining all of this). Baby is bored of the upper class guests and the hotel owner’s son Neil (Lonny Price), who, in typical rich asshole fashion, thinks they’re dating when she doesn’t pay any attention to him at all. She finds new meaning when she discovers the titular “dirty dancing” that goes on in a barn, and falls in love with Swayze’s character in the bargain.
For a film with the title Dirty Dancing, it’s incredibly straightlaced. Outside of the dancing itself, which doesn’t even feel that transgressive because the film doesn’t fully ground itself in its supposedly sixties time period, there’s nothing that even approaches “dirty.” At all. I suppose you could argue that the whole abortion subplot is somewhat daring, but the film makes every effort to present it in the least daring way possible. The woman getting the back alley abortion is all “I thought he loved me!” and the guy who impregnated her is a scoundrel. The long and short of it is, even though characters are forbidden to do things or are doing things that are outside the mainstream morality of the sixties, everything is toned down and presented in the least objectionable way possible so that nothing really feels like a big deal.
Similarly, the movie tries to make everything about class, but it doesn’t fully come through. Hell, Titanic did a better job of depicting the divide between the rich and the poor than this movie. So much of the “drama” in this movie comes from really dumb misunderstandings, and while that can work (eg. everything Shakespeare ever wrote), here it was just annoying. The main conflict is Doc Houseman (Jerry Orbach, Lenny from Law and Order!) assuming that Johnny got his dance partner pregnant. Why does he think he did this? Because he’s poor! So he must have done it! Obviously! But we know he didn’t do it, so there’s no drama there except the damaged relationship between Baby and her father, which would be sad had it been built up before the shit hits the fan, instead of after.
In short, the film is terribly written, the actors terribly directed, and only occasionally well performed. Swayze and Gray have good chemistry outside of their absurdly moral dialogue at some points. That dancing though. The only times this film is legitimately good is when characters are dancing. I also don’t hate the way the film was shot (cinematography by Jeff Jur, who mostly does TV now). Most of the film is just slightly overexposed, giving it a bit of a dreamlike feel. It’s outside a lot of the time, so it seems like everything is glowing slightly. The only thing is, it doesn’t feel like a sixties way to shoot a film, it feels (and looks) like Fatal Attraction. The dancing is well captured; enough full shots to get the full effect of what’s going on. I’m a huge fan of the jump cuts of the sequence where Baby is practicing, and the “Love is Strange” scene works great (and I love that song).
The best way to describe this film is noncommittal. It doesn’t feel committed to selling any part of itself, outside the dancing really. The characters and their relationships are underdeveloped, the conflict doesn’t feel like it has any real stakes, the transgressiveness that one might expect from the title is moralized away, and the time period recreation and shooting style is caught halfway between the sixties and the eighties, as are the music choices. Despite how much I’m hating on this movie, I was still surprisingly on board while watching it and I’m not enough of a dancing expert to explain why. But you know, the dancing is good and the actors are attractive, and for a guilty pleasure movie, you don’t really need much else.
“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” (obviously)
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars
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