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Dirty Dancing

“Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” — Robert Frost

Of all the romance films released in 1987, none of them (with one exception we’ll be getting to later) are so fondly remembered as Dirty Dancing. The soundtrack alone is a classic, with “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” “Love is Strange,” “Hungry Eyes,” “In the Still of the Night,” and many other songs that are still inextricably tied to this movie 25 years later. That isn’t even getting started on the iconic choreography from Kenny Ortega, who later went on to direct a couple dozen musical projects in film and TV (one of which is a remake of Dirty Dancing, currently in development for a 2014 release).

There’s no denying that this is a widely-beloved film. This in spite of the fact that Dirty Dancing sucks. Sorry, but it does.

However, before I go any further, I will grant that the dancing is phenomenal. Some dance scenes are “dirtier” than others, but it’s worth remembering that this film takes place in the summer of ’63. By those standards, the dance scenes are all quite racy. That aside, this plot is entirely predictable. I could’ve stopped the film thirteen minutes in, secure in the knowledge that I already knew how the film would play out. And I really wish I had.

But forgive me, maybe it’s best if I take it from the top.

The film is semi-autobiographical. The protagonist (Frances, played by Jennifer Grey) and screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein were both nicknamed “Baby” as they grew up in the ’60s. Both of them are younger daughters of Jewish doctors, and both of them took family summer vacations in the Catskills. They also competed in “Dirty Dancing” competitions back then.

So basically, what we have here is a self-insertion Mary Sue narrative. Not a good start.

Like I said before, all the threadbare cliche points are brought up in the first thirteen minutes. A shallow, annoying, narcissistic bitch? Yeah, she’s the older sister (Lisa, played by Jane Brucker). An impossibly handsome older man with a rebellious streak and a great flair for dancing? Yeah, he’s in there (Johnny, played by the late, great Patrick Swayze). A stern and old-fashioned authority figure who disapproves of the love interest’s raw sexual energy? He’s the owner of the rest resort where this all takes place (Max Kellerman, played by Jack Weston). The totally dull jerk who lusts for our protagonist? He’s the owner’s grandson (Neil Kellerman, played by Lonny Price).

Let me guess: The flashy dancer teaches our protagonist how to dance, she becomes an expert in just a few days, the two of them fall in love, the dancer gets fired, the two of them win some dance contest in spite of the dickhead owner, and they all live happily ever after, right? *checks the Wikipedia plot synopsis* Yup. That’s exactly what happens.

…Wait a minute. *re-reads the plot synopsis* What’s this about an abortion?!

Yes, we learn at the half-hour mark that Johnny’s usual dancing partner (Penny, played by Cynthia Rhodes) has gotten knocked up by a womanizing douchebag on the resort staff (Robbie, played by Max Cantor). Robbie himself is of absolutely no help in the matter, saying that “some people count, some people don’t,” as if that means anything. Anyway, Baby goes to her father asking for $250 to pay for the abortion, refusing to say what it’s for. And he gives her the money, just like that. So Penny goes off to have the abortion, leaving Johnny to take Baby in as his replacement partner.

Where… the fuck… do I begin?

First of all, the father. He’s only ever been a cardboard cutout up until now, and his first relevant action in this movie is to loan his daughter a lot of money with no questions asked. It wouldn’t even be fair to call this character one-dimensional. He’s a plot device, and an unforgivably lazy plot device at that. The mother is even worse, since she’s plainly in earshot when this conversation is taking place and she doesn’t say a damned thing about it!

Secondly, the issue of abortion. The controversy over abortion is as old as abortion itself. It’s a tremendously complicated issue that’s going to provoke a great deal of emotions from both sides of the debate. That’s not to say abortion should never be addressed, but any storyteller who attempts it had damn well better know what they’re doing. These filmmakers do not know what they’re doing. The issue was handled better in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which came out five years earlier), for God’s sake. As far as this movie’s concerned, pregnancy is something that a one-dimensional dickhead inflicts upon an unwilling woman, and abortion is something that money can buy to make it all go away. Yes, the abortion is botched, but everything is quickly made hunky-dory with no ill after-effects. There’s no discussion about the ethics, or the various pros and cons, and the film is quick to gloss over any consequences or ethical ramifications. Now, you might argue that none of that has any place in a light Mary Sue romance such as this one. Well, that’s my point exactly!

The abortion is totally unnecessary. It’s simply a means of getting the cliched plot to unfold exactly as it would have anyway. Initially, it’s a means for Baby and Johnny to start dancing together. There had to have been a better way. Penny could have been injured or gotten food poisoning and the story would have been exactly the same. Hell, she could have been a drug addict and it still would have been better than bringing abortion into this. In point of fact, why do we even need Penny? Johnny could just as easily have gone to Baby (or vice versa), they try dancing together, and he takes her on as his partner. Sure, it would have been cliched wish fulfillment, but that damage has already been done, so why stop now?

After that, the abortion subplot is used as a way for Baby’s father to find out about the whole thing and forbid her from seeing Johnny. Again, there had to be a better way. Lisa could easily have told him. He could have caught her coming back home. I know that I’m just listing cliches here, and I know that I normally praise movies with more creative storytelling. In this case, however, I just ask that the movie commit to a tone. The movie tries to be a breezy Harlequin romance even after abortion is brought in, and it just doesn’t work that way. Once you drop that bomb, you drop that fucking bomb.

Sorry, I honestly didn’t mean for that diatribe to take up more than half the review, but there really isn’t much else to this movie. The visuals are standard, the plot is otherwise completely predictable, and the characters are all flat as cardboard. And all of that is before we get to the climax, in which nobody acts in a way that makes any kind of sense.

Patrick Swayze is known as the most memorable actor in this picture, but I’m pretty sure that’s entirely because of all the time he spends shirtless. Meanwhile, Jennifer Grey is so dull that I had to force myself to remember her dynamic and jealous performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the year before. Their romance together has absolutely no believable chemistry, precisely because of how boring these characters are.

…Except when they’re dancing. To repeat, the dance scenes in this movie are amazing. Grey and Swayze are both extremely talented on the dance floor, and the chemistry between them is sizzling when they move together. I’d also add that the soundtrack to this movie thoroughly earns its reputation, since it’s loaded with great songs that are very well-used.

Basically, Dirty Dancing is a hell of a musical. When the songs are playing and the characters are dancing, it’s sensational to watch. But when the plot kicks in and the characters start talking, it’s mediocre to godawful. If this had just been a straightforward wish fulfillment pile of cliches, I might have understood the appeal. I still wouldn’t have liked it, but I could at least have respected the film for knowing what it was. Instead, the movie has to muddy things up with a totally unnecessary abortion subplot that could never have been handled well in a film like this.

The abortion topic, plus the seductive dancing, equals a movie that isn’t nearly as mature as it thinks it is. It’s a disingenuous film, one that tries to be edgy and sexy while also playing it safe for the teenaged girl crowd. Sadly, just as it worked for “Twilight” 25 years later, it apparently worked for Dirty Dancing as well.

So, what have the cast and crew been up to in the years since? Well, Patrick Swayze tragically died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, but not before churning out such fondly-remembered hits as Roadhouse, Ghost, Point Break, and even cult favorite Donnie Darko. He also filmed a bit part in the ill-received pseudo-prequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

Jennifer Grey is fortunately still with us, but she’s done very little of note since 1987. She’s picked up a few TV guest spots, and she got married to Clark Gregg (yes, Agent Coulson himself) in 2001, but that’s about it.

Aside from writing and directing some movie that nobody’s heard of (Let It Be Me in 1995), Eleanor Bergstein has been pretty far off the radar since 1987. She did, however, launch a rather successful campaign in Australia to turn Dirty Dancing into a stage musical. IMDB also lists her as a producer on the upcoming remake, but I’d take that with a grain of salt.

As for director Emile Ardolino, he died of AIDS complications only six years after Dirty Dancing. In the time between, he managed to direct Sister Act, a film adaptation of “The Nutcracker,” and… Three Men and a Little Lady. The sequel to Three Men and a Baby. The same guy who directed Dirty Dancing directed a sequel for Three Men and a Baby.

You know what? I’m going to end the review right now before I put any more thought into that.

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