Film Rating: D
For those of you happily ignorant of eighties dance cinema: “Footloose” is the story of Ren McCormack, a teenager from Boston who moves to Bomont, Georgia with his Aunt and Uncle after his mother passes away. Ren, a gymnast and dancer, is shocked to learn that after five teenagers died in a car crash coming home from an alcohol-fueled dance party, Bomont’s local preacher convinced City Council to impose a strict curfew, outlaw rock music, and worst of all, ban all public dancing! HOW DARE THEY!!! Ren soon grows frustrated with the harsh impositions of Bomont, and with the Preacher’s rebellious daughter Ariel by his side, decides to fight the dance ban.
What a thoroughly silly premise. I can’t speak to how the 1984 original treated this material – I’ve never seen it, and if you want a comparative perspective I’d point you towards Roger Ebert’s riotously funny take on the remake – but the only way to make that premise work would be to realize it with equally silly execution. Craig Brewer’s remake, however, wishes to be taken absolutely seriously, slathering every scene in multiple coats of melodrama. A serious film has certain narrative and ethical responsibilities that campier movies would not be beholden to. “Footloose” fails because it neglects to meet any of these responsibilities, and that means there’s a lot more here to criticize than I initially anticipated.
Read more after the jump...
To start, the film’s premise seems even flimsier when set in the year 2011. Are teenagers these days really that obsessed with dancing? I get that this was all the rage in 1984, but speaking from personal experience, teenagers aren’t all uniformly driven by a desire to wow the world with brilliant dance moves. And Rock ‘n Roll music certainly isn’t the dominant genre among teenagers any more – it’s been long since eclipsed by hip-hop, rap, indie, metal, etc. - which makes it very strange that the kids in this film fight for their rights to play Rock ‘n Roll while the adults – all of whom are at an age where they should have been teenagers during the Rock explosion of the sixties – hate the music and everything it stands for.
Even if the film wasn’t twenty-six years out of the zeitgeist, I seriously doubt that ‘dance-ban’ legislation would ever come to fruition in this day and age. The government in “Footloose” is a shameless theocracy, and I’d like to think we’ve moved past City Councils taking their orders from the local Preacher. Yet were this law actually passed, word of its ridiculous nature would surely find its way online, where the internet would work its magic: Change.org would start a petition in a day or two that would become all the rage on Facebook and Twitter, CNN and other major news outlets would start carrying the story to fill time on their 24-hour-news-cycle, and within a week, Bomont would be so universally disgraced that they’d have no choice but to lift the ban. This material may have made sense in 1984, but when transplanted to 2011 without even a hint of modernization, it all seems laughably outdated.
Again, these aren’t complaints I would lodge if the movie attempted to have fun with its premise. It asks to be taken seriously, and in that case, these logical conundrums undermine the so-called ‘drama.’ More importantly, the film wrestles with some big issues that it utterly fails to think through. The religion point I brought up earlier is actually a very problematic one. For me at least, it’s kind of disturbing to see a town so completely ruled by Christianity; I understand the storytelling function – it’s a narrative shorthand to demonstrate how little tolerance the adults of this town have for any sort of outside thinking – but the debate about separation of Church and State is an important one these days, and though Ren makes a passing reference to the concept, it’s never followed up on. Nobody points out that by making decisions based on faith, Bomont is flagrantly violating the US Constitution; as a remake, “Footloose” could have easily distinguished itself by tackling this issue head-on, examining the religious generation gap that must surely exist in real-life places like Bomont. It doesn’t, and it therefore feels all the more dated.
More problematic for me is the film’s attitude towards drinking and drugs. The opening-credits sequence makes it fairly clear that the copious amounts of alcohol consumed at a dance party caused the crash that killed 5 teenagers, not dancing. The implication is that the adults ban dancing to risk the chance that their kids will go out and drink, but the alcohol part of the equation is never touched upon again. This is a shame. I think it’s very natural for a parent to blame the scenario where alcohol is consumed, rather than the alcohol itself, and exploring the relationship between dance and liquor could lead to fertile thematic territory. For instance, the kids and adults could reach a middle ground, where the adults realize dancing on its own isn’t so bad, while the kids discover that they don’t need alcohol to have fun, that dancing on its own is enough. That, at least, would add shades of grey to the narrative, rather than the stark, black-and-white adults BAD kids GOOD angle the film takes.
I’m actually a bit stunned at how much Brewer makes us hate the adults in this film. Dennis Quaid (why, Dennis, why?) plays the Preacher, who I found to be a truly deplorable human being; he is quick to judge others, is unfair and abusive to those around him, and manipulates the town’s faith to further his own agenda. The last act attempts to humanize the character, but it’s too little too late. Every other adult is equally deplorable, all of them bigots against teenagers for no apparent reason. If the adults acted this way to protect their kids, we could understand their actions, but they all seem to actively detest their kids, and we find them repugnant in return.
That being said, I didn’t like the teenagers either. Kenny Wormald is decent as Ren McCormack, but far from memorable; he sports a “Boston” “accent” that comes and goes, his screen presence is spotty, and when he’s asked to be ‘rebellious,’ his performance falls flat. The kid looks so innocent that it’s hard to believe the adults of the town would ever see him as a threat. He’s best in the quiet moments – I quite liked his delivery of the “this is our time” speech – or when dancing. I was never invested in the character, but at least I didn’t hate him in the way I did his best friend Willard, played by Southern Shia LaBeouf. I’m sure this actor has a real name, but given his physical appearance and mannerisms, I’m more inclined to believe Brewer simply created a Southern clone of LaBeouf, and I’m utterly baffled by the decision. What a terribly obnoxious character.
None of the other teenagers stand out as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – they merely exist – save for the Preacher’s daughter, Ariel, played by Julianne Hough. This character is the most problematic of the film. She is clad exclusively in skimpy outfits that would look right at home on a stripper, always dances as though she is near a pole whether or not she actually is, takes off her clothes in a seductive manner more than once, and the camera views her only as a sexual object. Wow. Michael Bay himself would be ashamed of the sexual objectification going on here. The film implies that Ariel acts this way out of rebellion, but I have a higher opinion of teenage girls than to think that their only means of acting out is to become the town stripper. The writing for the character is paper-thin and though Hough struggles admirably to make her terrible dialogue connect, she can’t cover up the fact that she was cast for one reason and one reason only. In a film that wants so badly to be taken seriously, it’s honestly disturbing to see a central character treated only as an object of lust.
I wish I could say that the production values at least make up for some of the narrative and character faults. They don’t. Brewer’s direction is lazy and uninspired, with distractingly tight framing that gives the film a presumably unwanted claustrophobic effect. Many of the pop songs used fit well, but the musical score by Deborah Lurie is terrible; it’s the kind of generic garbage one would hear on a bad sitcom, and whenever heard, it bogs the film down to “TV-movie” quality. The editing is jarring and awkward, and the film could use some serious trimming; there are so many unnecessary, awful scenes that at two hours, the film is at least one hour too long.
The only scenes where the film truly comes together are the dances, all impeccably choreographed and executed. These scenes don’t involve dialogue, character development, narrative progression, or any other basic cinematic qualities, so they are free from all the film’s flaws. The four dance sequences featured in the film can’t add up to more than five or six minutes in total though, so mathematically speaking, that’s 5% of the movie that works against 95% that doesn’t.
“Footloose” is awful. It’s not actively, offensively terrible in the way “Sucker Punch,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “What’s Your Number” are, so it’s not quite the worst movie of 2011. I was able to resist the urge to gnaw my own leg off while watching, which means it was more or less tolerable (and yes, the studio should feel free to take that as a pull quote). “Footloose” is outdated, inane, sexist, poorly acted, terribly written, and shoddily produced. It takes itself very seriously, and at the risk of sounding like one of the film’s grumpy old grown-ups, it isn’t nearly responsible enough to be trusted on those terms.