"Footloose" is so good-naturedly cheesy and harmless that you may feel like a jerk for not liking it more. A remake of the 1984 movie -- sometimes it feels more like a deja vu of the original film it so closely echoes -- this new version mostly exists in some bizarro parallel universe that wants to be both an honest look at Southern teenage life but also a fantasy world in which high school is full of nothing but incredibly beautiful kids who all have incredible dance moves. Here's a silly, goofy movie that might have been better if had been sillier and goofier still. When the characters talk seriously about their feelings, it's usually best to place your thoughts elsewhere.
The plot remains essentially the same from the first film: A rebellious, dance-loving big-city Boston kid named Ren (Kenny Wormald) moves to the sleepy Southern town of Bomont and discovers that there are laws against public dancing and amplified music. The reason is because three years ago the town lost five of its high school students in a fatal car accident that happened after a dance. One of the parents who lost a child is Rev. Moore (Dennis Quaid), who sits on the city council and appears to be the city's official moral compass. But he's got a pretty frisky teenage daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), who takes a liking to this new guy, which doesn't please her father one bit. (Weirdly, though, Dad doesn't seem to mind one bit about her incredibly provocative outfits.)
If you've seen the original, you've basically seen the remake, which is hardly a problem since it's not as if the '84 film was a model of groundbreaking narrative ingenuity. No, it was about fun songs and good dancing and high spirits, which is why it was a nervy choice on Paramount's part to draft "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer to direct the new film. In its own way, "Hustle & Flow" was a musical, too, and between that film and its follow-up ("Black Snake Moan"), Brewer has shown an ability to portray the South with a sexy, sweaty swagger.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the remake's evocative portrayal of Bomont is one of the best things about it, soaking in the Southern culture in a way that feels authentic rather than mere local color. The Bomont of the new "Footloose" is one where religion and underage sex live side-by-side, and it's to the film's credit that it's not judgmental about any of the people it comes across. Sometimes that's a big problem, though: Apparently, Bomont is the least racially tense town in the history of America, and when the one clearly jerky character lets fly with a homophobic epithet he's quickly chastised by our hero. Sure, maybe these kids aren't allowed to dance, but their parents must have done something right in the way they raised them.
That sense of reality-lite would have been less problematic if the movie wasn't so achingly sincere in the portrayal of its characters. Ren walks around with a near-pompadour hairdo that screams "I'm the movie's rebel outsider," but of course he has demons he's trying to escape from back home. Ariel is a lithe creature whose smile is always set to Maximum Flirt, but you won't be surprised that she's become a bad girl because of the death of her brother. Just about everybody in "Footloose" has his or her reasons for why they do what they do, but while Hollywood's dance-choreography technology has advanced considerably in the last 27 years, apparently we're still drooling cavemen when it comes to laying out story beats. Everything on an emotional level in "Footloose" happens with a thudding obviousness that Brewer occasionally treats with a knowing cheesiness that's meant to say, "Oh, c'mon, you're not really here for these scenes, right? Don't worry, there'll be some dancing soon."
And while there is, there simply wasn't enough for me to make up for what happens when the music isn't pumping. I wasn't expecting the gritty urgency of "Hustle & Flow" from "Footloose," but its general good cheer would have gone done a lot smoother if its foundation wasn't so generic. I also would have preferred some livelier performances. Wormald and Hough have the right youthful zest, but they're almost too creepily good-looking, like they're genetically engineered teenage lifeforms meant to pass undetected in normal society. (Hough used to do ads for Proactiv, and her role in "Footloose" might as well be a further endorsement for the power of flawless skin.) Honestly, I preferred the supporting characters, especially Ren's dorky buddy Willard (Miles Teller) and Ren's wry uncle (Ray McKinnon). But the movie's not about them -- it's about The Rebel and The Bad Girl. I can't say I cared about either of them that much. But it is fun to watch them dance.