Posted by martinteller on June 9, 2014
It’s the summer of 1963, and 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is on vacation at a holiday camp in the Catskills. She’s there with her sister Lisa (Jane Brucker), mother Marjorie (Kelly Bishop), and the father she worships, Jake (Jerry Orbach). Baby gets a peek at the off-limits world of the resort staff, who spend their free time carousing and (you guessed it) “dirty dancing”. She’s especially drawn to the two dance instructors, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes). But they have a problem: Penny has been impregnated by one of the other staffers (Max Cantor). Baby — a young woman with altruistic ideals — manages to get the money for a back-alley abortion, but having the operation means missing an important dancing exhibition, and could cost Johnny his livelihood. Baby agrees to fill in, but she’ll need intense training to get up to speed in time.
There’s more to the plot than that, and that’s important because I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this movie is all just mismatched-couple-works-towards-a-common-goal-and-falls-in-love boilerplate. In fact, the event that they train for comes roughly at the halfway point and is hardly a climactic, triumphant moment. The film defied my narrow perceptions (based almost entirely on music videos and the knowledge that at one point, someone will put or try to put Baby in a corner) of what I thought it would be. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there is a climactic, triumphant moment at the end. And yep, it’s a bit corny and cliché. But it’s not as predictable as you might think, and it feels well earned. It’s genuinely sweet.
The film doesn’t easily fall into “rom com” or “dance movie” genre definitions. If anything, I’d call it a coming-of-age film, with Baby (how’s that for a loaded nickname?) experiencing both a sexual awakening and achieving an awareness of her social status and privilege. She becomes disillusioned with her father… and reconciles with him again, after both have done some growing. I have to say I thought Grey was really terrific, I loved watching her. Maybe her character is just too easy to root for, but something about the way Grey carries herself comes off as very earnest and present. Swayze gives an intriguingly layered performance as well… not too dumb, and not too full of working-class wisdom either.
There’s also some commentary on the changing times, an era when “free love” is right around the corner, and JFK is about to be assassinated. Some of the commentary is too blunt, even cringe-worthy when the camp owner (Jack Weston) pretty much spells it out to the audience near the end. And there are other flaws. The montage leading up to Baby and Johnny’s performance makes it feel like months of training, when it’s only supposed to be a few days. I think Baby changes outfits 8 or 9 times. For the plot to really work, it really needs to be just a few days, so someone in the editing room got too montage-y. Also, while the soundtrack is full of great, not-too-obvious songs from the period, it sucks whenever there is contemporary music playing. You can’t hide 80’s production, it sticks out like a sore thumb. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” could work structurally and lyrically as a song from 1963 (and having Bill Medley sing it doesn’t hurt either) but once you hear that drum sound, forget about it. At least it’s a good tune, though. One can almost forgive the anachronism. But the other modern songs on the soundtrack are stinkers.
But overall, this was a very entertaining film. A quite enjoyable blend of both comfortable cliché and unexpected depth and personality. It’s got feel-goodiness, and that’s not a bad thing. Rating: Very Good (83)