`Dirty Dancing': a second look at a big box-office hit

The Catskill Mountains of New York are popular with vacationers, and lately they've been popular with filmmakers, too. A pair of recent movies deal with young people coming of age in the cool mountain air. The better of the two was ``Sweet Lorraine,'' which vanished from the screen too soon. By contrast, ``Dirty Dancing'' has become a hit - and a hit with ``legs,'' to borrow Hollywood's term for a movie that holds up well over time.

The heroine of ``Dirty Dancing'' is a 17-year- old girl who learns the facts of life and love during a family vacation back in 1963, when everyone - according to this movie - always talked about things like the Peace Corps and Southeast Asia.

Her name is Frances, but everyone calls her Baby, since this is the kind of movie that uses nicknames to reveal deep insights into its characters - in this case, the fact that Frances isn't very mature yet.

Her dad is a rich doctor; her mom thinks of nothing but the children; her sister is pretty and spoiled. The four of them show up for a dignified summer vacation at Kellerman's Mountain House, the kind of summer spa where even the waiters are dripping with college degrees.

Baby doesn't get much attention from boys - it doesn't occur to her that a name like Baby might be a turnoff - and she's prepared to do without romance for the summer. But then she meets Johnny, the hotel's dance instructor.

Not a college man like the waiters, he's just an ordinary guy making a few dollars off his naturally twinkling toes. Baby likes him, for reasons the movie leaves rather vague, and they start falling for each other. If this were an actual summer vacation, they'd probably get tired of each other pretty fast. But this is a movie summer vacation, so events take a big turn just in time: Johnny's dancing partner gets knocked out of action by a convenient subplot, and Baby must learn how to dance with him in the big end-of-season show.

This leads to endless scenes of Baby and Johnny working together and being patient, exasperated, exhilarated, frustrated, etc. Finally our heroine Overcomes Her Fear and Masters the Routine, and even Grows Up so much that people call her Frances. Final fade-out.

The best thing about ``Dirty Dancing'' is the sound track, which pulses with hits by '50s and '60s people like the Ronettes, the Five Satins, and even Mickey & Sylvia doing their inimitable ``Love Is Strange.''

Less appealing is the way ``Dirty Dancing'' strains to show how liberal it is about Baby's choosing a working-class man over the budding doctors and MBAs who swarm around the resort.

It's a perfectly fine decision, of course. But since the film doesn't bother to tell us what makes Baby and Johnny such a happy couple, the setup seems arbitrary, especially since it leads to an absurdly false and manipulative climax.

``Dirty Dancing'' has a skillful performance by Jennifer Grey as Baby - she's attractive but refreshingly unglamorous - and some people in the supporting cast are fun to watch. Among them are Jack Weston as the hotel owner and Paula Trueman as a felonious vacationer whose big scenes, unfortunately, seem to have wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Bits of good acting aren't enough to overcome the bogus elements at the center of the story, though, or the overcooked melodrama that grows from them.

The box office says different, but I think ``Dirty Dancing'' is a dud.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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