This made-for-TV remake, directed by Wayne Blair, is the latest in a fleet of extravagant television musicals, with ABC seemingly panicking in its rush to capitalize on a heaving new trend (its upcoming production of The Little Mermaid will be performed in October in a mind-bending amalgam of animation and live performance). Dirty Dancing, like Fox’s recent remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, suffers from being pre-taped, and therefore having nothing to distinguish it from the far superior original movie other than incessant advertising interludes. Breslin plays Baby, a bookish teenager heading to a Catskills vacation resort with her father (Bruce Greenwood), her mother (Messing), and her sister, Lisa (Sarah Hyland), who’s been inexplicably transformed from an abrasive antagonist to a sweet and supportive sibling.
For the first hour or so, everything is pretty much standard-issue imitation: Baby carries a watermelon, Baby crashes a party and becomes enamored with a pelvis-thrusting bad boy in leather (Colt Prattes), Baby learns to dance, amid churlish comments about her “spaghetti arms” and a soundtrack of ’60s classics. But even the songs, recorded by the likes of Karmin and Lady Antebellum rather than The Shirelles and Otis Redding, ring hollow. In the 1987 movie, the music evoked a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. Now, the updated covers evoke nostalgia for nostalgia, an Inception-like feat of physics that only reminds you how much better this all was when Patrick Swayze was in it.
That’s not to insult Prattes, a Broadway actor who does his best with an impossible ask in emulating Swayze’s febrile, snake-hipped magnetism. His Johnny is convincingly vulnerable, masculine, and chippy, and he has negative chemistry with Breslin, whose performance as Baby seems to have been interpreted for a high-school Ibsen play rather than a TV musical. Swayze and Jennifer Grey famously hated each other, which perhaps sparked some of the passion in their scenes together; Breslin and Prattes have all the ritual awkwardness and squelched physicality of a father-daughter dance.
The most interesting part of Dirty Dancing is its expansion of Marjorie Houseman from a cheery and oblivious young Emily Gilmore to a tragic operatic heroine continually begging her husband to sneak back to their room for a quickie. This is presumably how Blair persuaded Messing to come on board, sweetening the deal with a musical number, in this case a sad-eyed performance of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The ballad of Marjorie is amped up with the expanded presence of Vivian Pressman (Sagal), a predatory divorcée who shoves Rolexes into Johnny’s jeans and laments how she can’t sleep alone at night because the walls creak. It’s a fascinating psychosexual exploration of middle-aged female desire that’s completely at odds with everything else going on. More to the point, when Baby’s discovery of her burgeoning womanhood is superseded by her mother’s, there’s a problem.