Saturday, June 17, 2017

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Although Dirty Dancing is not the usual type of movie I watch, the good folks at Myopia: Defend Your Childhood chose it for their weekly examination of whether beloved childhood movies hold up. I figured I'd give it a spin, and I was not disappointed. Here's the link to the podcast. And now for my review.

The Plot

In the early 1960s, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, young Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey), the daughter of wealthy doctor Jake (Jerry Orbach), is vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Although Neil (Lonny Price) the grandson of resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) seeks her attentions, she instead falls for the working-class dance teacher Jack Castle (Patrick Swayze). Complications ensue. Will young love triumph? We'll just have to see...

The Good

*Jennifer Grey does a really good job playing "Baby." Her facial expressions, in particular her eyes, are extremely expressive and she uses them quite well. For example, when the sheltered doctor's daughter stumbles onto the raunchy dance party the resort staff are holding, her expression speaks volumes. She's seriously Adorkable and does a great job in the part.

*The other actors do a good job. Patrick Swayze's Castle is cool, Orbach is appropriately paternal (and, as a doctor, outraged at the "butcher" who presides over a botched abortion), and Weston conveys Kellerman's snobbery (but surprising kindness toward his longtime band leader). Cynthia Rhodes, who plays Johnny's dance partner Penny, does a lot with a part that could have had more depth. Price and Max Cantor, who plays slimy waiter Robbie Gould, do a good job playing the sort of upper-class lowlifes who give fraternities a bad name. Seriously, I referred to both of them as "young Donald Trump" for their attitudes toward women and the resort staff.

*And on the matter of women and the resort staff, the movie deals with some very important social issues without being annoying and preachy. The upper-class waiters (who are doing this as a summer job while at schools like Yale and Harvard) are clearly disdainful of the working-class dance instructors and other resort staff, something the elder Kellerman encourages by telling the waiters they're there to "show the daughters a good time" but threatening to fire any staffer who get involved with a guest. Baby's older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) clearly fits in with the shallow world of 1960s wealthy people who have few aspirations beyond socializing and marrying well, but it's clear Baby doesn't want that and doesn't really fit in. The class issue ties in with a plot involving an illegal abortion in which Gould tells Baby that some people count and some people don't, complete with showing her a copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for good measure.

And although the abortion plot is something that could potentially derail the film into an issues movie (and aggravate viewers on either side of the issue), it's handled compassionately and respectfully. We see exactly why the character in question goes through with it, how badly it could have gone in the days when abortion was illegal (both the danger of death and, should the woman survive, sterility), and we see Dr. Houseman's outrage toward both the back-alley abortionist (whom he calls a "butcher") and the young man he initially thinks is responsible. The whole situation is just sad.

*The soundtrack's good. It mixes both music from the 1960s when the movie takes place with songs from the 1980s when the movie was made. One of the songs, "She's Like The Wind," was even sung by Swayze himself, who's a good singer.

The Bad

*The movie drags a little bit in parts. I spent a good bit of time on my phone. To be fair, that's because this is not the sort of movie I ordinarily enjoy watching. Someone else--and considering how beloved this film is, that'd probably be most people--wouldn't have that problem.

*The movie has an actual Training Montage when Baby learns to dance. I remarked that this was like seeing a cliche come to life, but the movie is also nearly 30 years old. Back then training montages might not have been so cliched, although Nick tells me that training montages occur in some of the earliest movies.

*Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention, but as I said earlier, the characters Robbie Gould and Neil Kellerman are so similar in look and action that I actually thought they were both the same character. Neil claims that he's planning on joining the Freedom Riders (and the TVTropes page for the film claims that actually shows he has hidden depths), but it came off to me that he was taken aback that Baby in interested in studying economics and joining the Peace Corps rather than studying English (aka an "MRS Degree," given the time and her social class) and was scrambling for some way to impress her. Both of them came off to me as "young Donald Trump," with Neil as snotty and pushy toward "the help" and Robbie as a vile cad.

*Where are Baby's parents? Castle is teaching Baby how to dance and the film implies this takes most of the summer, with the climax taking place at the end of the season. Certain events in the film early on strongly prejudice Dr. Houseman against Castle and I imagine he wouldn't want Baby involved with him AT ALL or, if he did allow her to take lessons, he'd keep a close eye on them. There's a deleted scene suggesting Mrs. Houseman knows a lot more about what's going on, but a deleted scene doesn't help much.

*It would have been nice if Baby's actual name is revealed earlier. It's not even in the credits!

*How much older is Castle than Baby? If the resort staff are all in their 20s and 30s and "the daughters" are all teens, Mr. Kellerman would have reasons beyond class snobbery to want to limit guest-staff romances to the wait staff, who are all college students and are consequently more appropriate age-wise. Patrick Swayze was in his 30s when the movie was made, for example, while Frances' character would have still been in high school if not just graduated and college-bound.

*It's my understanding that going to the Catskills for extended summer vacations was a primarily Jewish thing (hence the "Borscht Belt"), but religion or culture is never touched on. This article in Tablet Magazine suggests Dirty Dancing is "the most Jewish film ever," but if you're not already familiar with the cultural milieu, you wouldn't get it. Some indication that the characters are Jewish would have been nice, plus if Castle is a Christian (or at least simply isn't Jewish), that's another reason for Dad to be bothered.

The Verdict

It's not my type of movie, but it's very well-done. 8.5 out of 10.

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