The original Dirty Dancing is a movie so beloved that its ingestion into the voracious Hollywood reboot machine was near-inevitable. Except Dirty Dancing has already been through the reboot rigmarole, multiple times, and never successfully. There was the 1988–89 TV adaptation, which came right on the heels of the original movie and was quickly canceled. Sorta-prequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights bombed upon its February 2004 release. I won’t defend it here, except to say that the script’s backstory made for an interesting This American Life segment and a pre–Mad Men John Slattery in the dad role is worth looking out for. But the lesson of all of this is that the magic of the original Dirty Dancing is really, really hard to re-create. It may be corny and clichéd, but there’s a reason it was a hit with a soundtrack that spent an eternity on the Billboard charts.
So this week’s remake of Dirty Dancing on ABC is a curious thing: Dirty Dancing fans have not been clamoring for a reboot or a remake or so much as a re-airing—and it is already an immutable law of the universe established long ago that the original Dirty Dancing will always be replaying on some channel or streaming somewhere whenever you need it. A live musical update, like the ones other networks have been doing, could theoretically have been fun, but this is neither live nor really a musical, despite a few singing numbers. It’s a remake where just about everything—the plot, the dialogue, the dancing, the cast—has gotten worse.
A dinky framing device bookends the movie: It’s 1975, and Baby is watching a Dirty Dancing musical on Broadway. This lets the audience get a glimpse at what became of Baby and Johnny’s romance, a question of course better left to the imagination. But this movie makes no assumptions about whether its viewers have imaginations, preferring to spell as much as possible out, preferably in as clunky a manner as possible.
Take “I carried a watermelon,” for example: It’s one of the best lines of the original movie, awkward perfection when Jennifer Grey uses it to explain her presence at a resort staff-only party. Hot dance instructor Johnny Castle’s cousin Billy is carrying three watermelons over, the long kind, and because it’s impossible to balance that many long watermelons, guest Baby steps in to help. Then she says the watermelon line to Johnny when she meets him, and he’s cool enough not to respond. In the remake, Billy has three round watermelons, which he seems just fine carrying on his own in a pyramid formation. Baby has no real excuse to help, or come to the party. Then why is she there? Why does this movie exist? Plus the dialogue only gets worse: “I carried his watermelon,” remake-Baby says. Remake-Johnny responds, not-at-all coolly: “Do me a favor, carry your own watermelon next time.” That’s kind of all you need to know about the Dirty Dancing remake: The watermelons aren’t even the goddamn right shape.
Despite the momentary flash-forward at the beginning, mostly we’re back in the fateful summer of 1963 at Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills. Stepping into Baby’s Keds is Abigail Breslin, who still seems like the little girl in movies like Little Miss Sunshine rather than the devoted daughter we’re about to watch become a woman. It’s a tough role to fill because, on paper, Baby seems to veer into Mary Sue territory: She’s smarter than the rest of the shallow girls at the resort, she’s a do-gooder who doesn’t care about class distinctions, oh and despite being a huge dork she learns to dance well enough for Johnny Castle to fall in love with her. She goes from skinny kid to va-va-voom woman; she nails the lift; she has the time of her life. Breslin does the wide-eyed thing well enough, but she’s less able to pull off Baby’s intelligence and conviction, much less the dancing.
Oh God, the dancing: That’s all you really want to know, isn’t it? How the dancing is? Well, it’s dirty. In that scene where Baby discovers the resort staff gyrating after hours along to “Love Man” (many of the musical cues remain the same), it trades the sexiness of women hiking up their skirts for the obviousness of a lady dancer back-walkover-ing her crotch into a male dancer’s face. Colt Prattes, in the Patrick Swayze role but missing Swayze’s sizzling magnetism as well as his lightness, has moves befitting a Broadway dancer, but they don’t make up for his lack of acting skills or chemistry with Breslin. In the dancing department, she also fails to live up to Grey’s transformation, never looking fully comfortable swiveling her hips. Overall, the dancing is less natural and more stilted and choreographed, as in a stage musical. But again, this isn’t quite a musical, except for the times when it sort of is: Sometimes Prattes mouths the words of songs that have been updated by contemporary artists, and sometimes characters seem to leave the story momentarily to perform for an unseen audience. The lack of commitment means the movie never quite figures itself out.
The feminism of Baby in the original movie was unspoken: She cared more about joining the Peace Corps than landing a date; she didn’t judge Johnny’s dance partner Penny for wanting an abortion, and she helped get her the money to have one. When we meet Baby this time, she’s reading The Feminine Mystique and then explaining it to her sister, Lisa (Sarah Hyland). Lisa isn’t an entertainingly oblivious airhead this time around; in fact, she too gets to learn about feminism and heavy-handedly demonstrate her new progressiveness when she dabbles in an interracial romance. It’s fun to see J. Quinton Johnson, of Everybody Wants Some!! and Hamilton on Broadway, but he and Hyland don’t even kiss onscreen. And then there’s mom Debra Messing, also on a feminist journey in this remake, contemplating a divorce and taking oxygen away from the story of Baby’s awakening. Even nerdy Kellerman grandson Neil is woke: He, for some reason, loves that Baby is hip to Betty Friedan. This all leaves the Dr. Houseman in a confusing position: Is he a stand-up family guy or is he a pig who ignores his wife?
Also lost in this remake are the ways in which the original Baby Houseman was not just any girl coming of age but in particular a Jewish girl vacationing at a Jewish resort in the Catskills. This accentuated the class drama: Patrick Swayze wasn’t just some sexy dancer from the wrong side of the tracks; he was also a goy. Baby’s background was one more thing that made her different from the mainstream and one more thing for fans who also felt different to latch onto. The loss of that nuance is just another way the central romance of this movie feels less true and earned. Though someone has dutifully attacked Breslin’s head with a curling iron, it’s no match for Jennifer Grey’s convincingly natural curls.
In 1987, Dirty Dancing evoked our nostalgia for 1963. The 2017 remake tries to evoke our nostalgia not for the ’60s but for the original movie, like a messy photocopy of a photocopy whose quality has been degraded. Watching this remake try to re-create the famous “Time of My Life” lift is like that too. Looking at an animated GIF of the lift from the original movie, pixilation and discoloration be damned, it’s still more fun to watch than Breslin and Prattes’ reheated attempt.