Friday, May 18, 2012

Footloose (2011)

Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid, Andie McDowell, Miles Teller, Patrick Flueger, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When the remake of Footloose was released last year I remember reading an interview with director Craig Brewer about how after initial reservations he was inspired to take on the project after viewing 2010's The Karate Kid remake with a cheering audience of 13-year-olds. He said that reaction put all his doubts aside and thought it would be arrogant for him to tell them the original is better and that they should be watching Ralph Maccio instead. And I can totally see his point.  I would never wish a child to have a bad time at the movies or try to tell him or her what they should or shouldn't be watching. I hope every kid who saw that remake loved it. After all, it was only made for them anyway. But that still won't change the fact I thought it was horrible and a blatant cash grab. So it's strange how his Footloose remake is the exact opposite of that, having more in common with both 1984 originals. It's actually for everyone. Yet they'll still be those who refuse to see it on the grounds that it shouldn't be happening at all and I respect that. Except this is really good, at points equaling (if not flat-out surpassing) the original. Of course it helps I don't hold the original film in such high esteem and could care less that they rebooted it, but a win's a win. Musicals just might be my least favorite genre so what a compliment it is that I never once felt I was watching a musical, but a story powered by the spirit of music its effect on the townspeople's lives.

The central idea around which the movie revolves always seemed kind of silly on paper and should have proven to be even more of a creative hurdle to clear when you set the story in the present day.  After a tragic car accident claims the lives of five youths in Bomont, Georgia following a party, the father of one of the victims and town reverend, Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) convinces the city council to pass an injunction that bans unsupervised public dancing within the city limits. Brewer cleverly sidesteps a flawed premise by actually showing the accident in the prologue. It may seem like a tiny change and it's certainly not depicted in any kind of graphic detail, but putting it onscreen makes the ban seem less ridiculous. Stepping into the iconic Kevin Bacon role, Kenny Wormald is Ren, a Boston teen arriving in the town to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother's death. He befriends the somewhat goofy Willard (Miles Teller, great in this) and is almost immediately attracted to Rev. Moore's daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), a wild child still acting out after losing her brother in the accident and shacking up with brutish dirt race driver Chuck (Patrick Flueger). As Ren and Ariel grow closer through their love of dancing, the rift between the adults and kids of the town continues to widen because of the ban.

Other than actually showing the inciting accident and replacing tractors with buses in a pivotal race sequence, there isn't much that's different from the original, but in this case, that's fine. There also seems to be a more eclectic mix of music this time around while still managing to squeeze in Kenny Loggins' infamously catchy title song (covered rather lifelessly by Blake Shelton over the closing credits) and Deniece Williams "Let's Hear It for the Boy." What Brewer does really well is flesh out the setting and its small-town characters so that everything looks and feels like it belongs a small southern town in 2011. There's a sense of time and place that never feels like you're watching actors on a sound stage. It won't ever be confused with Brewer's previous feature Black Snake Moan in that no scantily clad actresses get chained up to radiators but I was surprised just how much grit the movie managed with its PG-13. It's not exactly edgy but it isn't High School Musical either. There's also at least some kind of attempt at depicting racial diversity within the cast, which probably isn't an attempt so much as a reflection of reality inexcusably absent in most mainstream films about young people.  If its content qualifies it as mainstream fluff at least it never feels that way, even during the musical numbers which are well-placed and choreographed, rarely overstaying their welcome.

As Ren, Kenny Wormald is no Kevin Bacon but he is Kenny Wormald and that seems to work out. Bacon plays bad and tough better but his modern-day counterpart is likable and charismatic without being too vanilla. But it doesn't really matter since the movie belongs to co-star Julianne Hough in much the same way Bacon owned the original. While it's common knowledge she's an incredible dancer and really easy on the eyes, she goes the extra mile in delivering a surprisingly effective dramatic performance as a grieving daughter torn between the right and wrong side of the tracks, and commanding the screen well enough to launch a career that could easily extend beyond musicals. I keep hearing her being compared to a young Jennifer Aniston which was probably intended as a compliment from those forgetting Aniston wouldn't at any point be able to pull this part off. I'd even go as far as to say the movie succeeds mostly because of Hough, who's so perfectly cast it's almost a joke. Dennis Quaid appears initially to be just collecting another paycheck as the strict preacher but at the story progresses and the character develops he finds his groove, even if one key confrontational scene involving him in the third act seems a bit over-the-top and out of left field. And sure, the courtroom-heavy finale more closely resembles a school production of a mock trial than the fun that precedes it, but that's a small complaint when examining the big picture.

A satisfying explanation for this film's success couldn't possibly be provided by me as it's summed up best by Indiewire's Gabe Toro who wrote upon its release that "it captures exactly what MTV used to represent before the laws of capitalism swallowed the network whole." What a perfect description. Ironically MTV Films produced this, which almost feels like some kind of an accident as it harkens back to an era they've gone out of their way to bury. Embracing its cliches with confidence and sincerely wearing its heart on its sleeve, Footloose is completely honest and fun, reminding us not only of the reasons the original worked, but recreating the feeling of actually watching it. With so much mainstream entertainment dumbed down to the point that they may as well be commercials, here's a rare example of smart mainstream entertainment that's actually entertaining, evoking memories of 80's originals rather than the inferior remakes they continue to spawn.     

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