Paramount’s “Footloose” reboot never quite cuts loose enough to distinguish itself from the original. Treating the 1984 hit as a kind of sacred text, co-writer/director Craig Brewer — having irreverently helmed “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan” — merely goes through the motions of updating the toe-tappin’ tale of small-town high schoolers driven to dance despite the local minister’s fire-and-brimstone rules against stepping out in public. Sneaked two weeks in advance by an evidently confident Par, the mid-October release stands to play marginally better among current kids than former ones, who’ve almost literally seen it before — and with peppier actors.
Easy on the eyes where the Reagan-era Kevin Bacon was edgy, bigscreen newcomer Kenny Wormald (MTV’s “Dancelife”) swivels his hips persuasively as big-city transplant Ren McCormack, but that’s about as far as it goes. As the Tennessee preacher’s daughter, Ariel, who finds a kindred hellraiser in Ren, Julianne Hough (“Burlesque”) fares better, particularly in scenes opposite stern-looking Dennis Quaid as the overprotective Rev. Shaw Moore – plus she can dance. Nevertheless, when the music stops, young Hough is saddled, like her co-star, with the impossible task of making 27-year-old verbiage sound fresh.
Among Hollywood remakes, Brewer’s cover version may not be as fetishistic as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot recapitulation of “Psycho,” but it comes close. Dialogue, hardly the original’s strong suit, is repeated practically verbatim from the original screenplay by Dean Pitchford (credited here as co-writer with Brewer). As early as the opening credits, a hip-hop-inflected version of Kenny Loggins’ title tune — as well as Brewer’s proven affection for the grittier side of contemporary Southern culture — momentarily raises hopes of a funky “Footloose” that the pic proper dashes in short order.
Brewer begins with a miniature prequel to the original. Dramatizing the high-volume kegger that results in several teen fatalities and the subsequent puritanism of fictional Bomont, Tenn., the director ham-handedly invokes 9/11 and the Patriot Act before proceeding to follow the first “Footloose” step by step.
Sporting wayfarers and a new waver’s thin necktie, handsome orphan Ren steps off the Greyhound from Boston to live in Bomont with his aunt (Kim Dickens) and uncle (Ray McKinnon), who gives the kid a familiar-looking VW as a fixer-upper. No sooner is the yellow bug up and running than Ren’s iPod-powered car stereo gets him busted for disturbing the peace in the middle of nowhere.
The pic’s first musical scene is set at a drive-in movie theater where Bomont kids, including crushed-out Ren and Ariel (Hough), kick up their heels in a style that’s slightly more bumping and grinding than that of their ’80s predecessors. Later, Ren, pissed about having narrowly escaped a false drug possession charge, lets out his aggression through a gymnastic dance routine in an abandoned warehouse — a virtual carbon copy of Bacon’s star-making workout helmed by Herbert Ross (to whom the remake is dedicated).
Aided by choreographer Jamal Sims, Brewer’s musical staging is subtly less theatrical than Ross’, but it hardly constitutes a reinvention. By default, the pic’s most unique musical passage is a cute scene of grade-school girls, including Ren’s nieces, blasting Deniece Williams’s “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” out of a Barbie boombox while Ren’s flatfooted pal Willard (Miles Teller) struggles to keep up with their moves.
Unlike the original, the remake — which culminates to familiar effect in the footloose kids’ fancy-free liberation from the good reverend — seems to add up to something less than the sum of its teen-angst parts. If anything, Brewer’s pic comes across as slightly milder than Ross’, with Ariel’s abuse by her former beau (Patrick John Flueger) being toned down for 2011. Likewise, Amelia Vincent’s widescreen shooting appears soft. The new soundtrack, notwithstanding some incidental pop-rock, country, and blues tunes, leans heavily on revamped versions of the original songs, none of them hugely memorable.
Sneak-previewed print caught had Wormald and Hough briefly stepping out of character before the end credits to solicit positive tweets and Facebook postings from the audience.