I don’t if I should laugh or cry about “Step Up.” This brainless dance film doesn’t aspire to be anything but a time-waster for undiscerning teens, but it’s made so carelessly, the picture can’t even live up to that simple goal. And if the screenwriting doesn’t make you scream, the acting surely will.
Tyler (Channing Tatum, 26 years old playing 17) is a disaffected teen being pulled into the criminal underworld of his rough neighborhood. When a petty crime puts him in an arts high school to serve out his community service, Tyler is drawn to Nora (Jenna Dewan, also 26 trying to pass for a teenager), a frustrated ballet dancer without a suitable partner for her senior dance recital. Offering his services as a hip-hop dancer, Tyler and Nora begin to collaborate on the big recital, which helps brighten up the rest of their dour lives and offers Tyler hope for a better future.
At the risk of coming off as an old man, dance movies used to be about the risk, passion, or burning desire to express an artistic itch; recently, they’ve been reduced to dreadfully-written dramas meant to pimp hit soundtracks to allowance-heavy audiences. “Step Up” doesn’t feature a single mark of distinction in its entire production, and unless you’re a pushover pre-teen with a hankering for lousy acting and “this is your generation!” screenwriting that would take the label “hackneyed” as a compliment, I would suggest tangoing over to another movie worth your time.
Have you seen “Save the Last Dance” or last spring’s “Take the Lead?” Well, then you’ve already watched “Step Up.” Another attempt to shoehorn hip-hop dancing into classical ballet, “Step Up” isn’t the worst film on the subject, but is easily the most insipid. It’s a lethargic piece, strung together with cliches, and unwilling to aspire to be anything more than the established ingredients of a mild teen hit. Longtime choreographer Anne Fletcher finally gets her shot behind the camera, yet she passively watches as her film is eaten alive by the cancerous predictability of it all.
Casting clearly isn’t Fletcher’s forte either. Lead actress Jenna Dewan has a whiny quality that doesn’t portray the push and pull of real life vs. dance her character should be experiencing. And as for Channing Tatum, looks get this former male model in the door, while his enormous lack of charisma slams it shut in his face. When Tatum shakes his moneymaker, there’s a joy in his movement the rest of his performance lacks. Channeling his inner Vanilla Ice, Tatum conveys all the charm of a doormat, putting the brakes on any reason why the audience should care about his character. It’s a graceless, baffling acting job.
There should be a parade of rainbows once Tyler falls for dance, or even Nora, but Tatum can’t get past this one face he makes (think Cro-Magnon meets all too real confusion). When actual acting doesn’t work for Tatum, he falls back quickly on his old “blue steel” model poses to charm the only demo that could possibly be swayed by this movie: teen girls. The star might have liquid dance moves on the stage, but Tatum has worlds of acting homework ahead of him.
The largest sin committed by “Step Up” is when it goes for the melodramatic act of urban violence (the MAUV) to corral what it thinks passes for emotional cherry bomb. Once Tyler’s two African-American friends are introduced as car-stealing, sass-mouthed, money-lusting thugs, you know one of them is not going to be around to see Tyler dance his crooked-baseball-cap wearin’ ass off for the grand finale. Yet, even when presented with continual proof that this plot device never works (“Take the Lead” drank the same Kool-Aid), “Step Up” pads itself out 15 minutes longer to cover this subplot in punch-yourself-in-the-face detail. Who really wants to sit through that?Rating: D