Welcome back to the not-entirely-irregular feature that I’m calling “Unexpected Pleasures.” It’s about trying things that I might otherwise dismiss to discover the joys hidden inside. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Footloose remake that just came out last week opens in the only way it ever could: a pretty slavish, but clean and stylish, recreation of the titles of the original, which was a series of close-ups of dancing feet. This opening certainly prepares us for what is to come, as it’s not the only slavish recreation we’re going to see (those of you that were into the original will see familiar angry-warehouse-dancing, confetti-storms, and even a rusty yellow VW Bug).
But then, maybe if this remake was a little MORE slavishly dedicated to shot-for-shot re-creation, it’s pleasures might be easier to discover.
I think the largest flaw obscuring the pleasures of this remake is that it’s trying too hard to please basically everyone. For example, there’s a weirdly action-packed bus race in the middle of the film, complete with multiple crashes and fires. And the dancing is more inspired by Step Up than the Brat Pack, presumably because the nod to a more recent dance movie will draw a bigger crowd of young people. There’s also a lot of country music and whole lines of dialogue that seem designed only to pay respect to middle-America or “Christian values.”
But then there are also those scenes that are literally line-for-line cribbed from the original. The music is mostly exactly the same. The iconic confetti-dusted “let’s dance!” is virtually unchanged, and every element during the warehouse dance scene, down to the slats in the walls, looks identical to the original film. This remake is desperately trying to bring in the Step Up-loving children of the 00s right alongside the Kevin Bacon-loving children of the 80s. The result is kind of a mess that’s hard to love from either of those angles.
Aside from the bigger tone and construction problems, the movie also has a host of other more basic problems. For instance, it’s kind of embarrassingly obsessed with the body of its female lead (Ariel, played by Julianne Hough). The camera is drawn inexorably to her rear end or her exposed bellybutton in every shot in which she appears. That means that a scene that is otherwise about a bus chase ends up with her taking her shirt off, or a scene that’s about the joys of country line dancing includes the male lead (Kenny Wormland as Ren) essentially licking her stomach and face. (And don’t get me started on the incompatibility of the innocent, virginal, “maybe I’ll kiss you someday” church-love of some scenes and the near-obscene body-licking of the others… the two leads have been grinding against each other for about a half hour before their “first kiss.”)
Another pretty major flaw here is that, despite the film’s message that dancing is all about celebrating fun and youth, the dance sequences are almost never actually fun. They’re edited like bad action movies, with not much clue where to focus or what’s worth looking at. Wormland seems to have some serious dancing training, but his training means he’s dancing with a style that is more about intensity than exuberance. The result is that, while other actors (most notably Miles Teller as Willard) are nailing the little skips and arm swings that make every member of the audience want to dance, Ren and Ariel are more concerned with crumpled-up stomping and arm-waving and booty-shaking. The dancing mostly just doesn’t look any good, or any fun.
And it’s a damn shame that the fun dance sequences are dangerously outnumbered by the either unnecessarily sexy or jumbled and cluttered ones, because the fun ones are a LOT of fun. The big finish, where Willard has learned to dance and he and Ren get on the prom floor together, is the most fun dance sequence in the film (it’s actually even MORE fun than their duet in the original). It’s still a little poorly edited and the camera angels are still not doing anyone any favors, but it’s just so fun to see the two of them next to each other and totally in sync (something we haven’t yet seen in the film, since when Ren and Ariel are in sync, they’re basically dry-humping).
And I have to also mention that Teller, as Willard, is fantastic, and the update on his character is mostly perfect. I didn’t really catch until the middle of the movie that his defining characteristic is that he always gets in fights. It’s almost as if the movie suspected that there was a little too much nuance to the character, so they have his girlfriend say to him “now don’t go getting in a fight like you always do” to remind us that he’s meant to be a one-note character. He’s not, and despite this weird undercurrent, Willard is the most interesting and fun to watch character (which in turn makes him the most realistically human person in the film).
That also means that the montage of him learning to dance is by far the best section of the film (another instances where this film actually improves on the original). Willard increasingly competently dances all over town and alongside excited and adorable children. He moves fluidly, not jerkily and showily. And he smiles. Not mischievously, not devilishly or suggestively. Just genuinely. The dialogue he has to say is, just like everyone else’s, often pretty dumb, but his performance alone is still almost worth the price of admission. If there’s a real, unadulterated pleasure in this film, it’s watching Teller act and dance.
So there are pleasures here: the exuberant joy of dancing shines through here and there, and there’s a standout performance woven in here. Maybe the fun of this movie is just how unexpected these pleasures are, buried as they are under layers of unnecessariness.