Step Up presents a bit of a quandary for a film critic. There is a target audience for whom this movie is absolutely perfect, but I am not in that audience. It has a soundtrack full of hip-hop music, a lot of dancing, an adolescent love story, and a new heartthrob in the leading role. I’ve already been told by one 13 year-old girl that Step Up is the best movie ever, and for her it probably is. But an adult male with a working knowledge of film can’t help but recognize this is a paint-by-numbers production that’s been done before. It’s harmless and pleasant, and you’d have no problem sending your daughter to see it, even though you could show her better examples of the same story.
Channing Tatum (She’s the Man) plays Tyler Gage, a misspent youth in Baltimore. Tyler is one of those kids who have completely adopted the hip-hop sensibility. He’s usually decked out in Marc Ecko clothing, and his speech embraces all of the current rap slang. Tyler spends his time dancing at underground parties and stealing cars with his buddies. One afternoon, they break into the Maryland School for the Arts, trashing the stage in the process. (They resent how much stuff the rich kids have access to at their school.) When a security guard catches Tyler, he is arrested. The judge orders him to perform community service by working as a janitor at the school.
It is here that he meets Nora (Jenna Duwan), an ambitious dancer who is about to perform in the big “showcase” event that could land her a job with a professional company. Nora has several obstacles in her path. First, her mother would rather she attend college after graduating. Second, her dance partner has just sprained his leg and may not be able to do the show with her. Third, she can’t find a suitable rehearsal replacement. Reluctantly, she agrees to audition Tyler after seeing him bust some moves in the parking lot. The guy can dance, and with no other option, she agrees to rehearse with him until her regular partner heals. This arrangement doesn’t sit well with Nora’s boyfriend, an aspiring pop singer who relies on his best friend/beatmaster, Miles (R&B singer Mario), for musical inspiration.
You’ve probably already ticked off the remaining plot points on your own. Tyler doesn’t approach the rehearsals with seriousness, and Nora gets angry. Their bickering hides a serious mutual attraction. A tragedy occurs, which forces Tyler to get serious about his life – and his dancing. They meld his street style of dance with her more formal style to create something “new.” The school’s director (Rachel Griffiths) agrees to consider admitting Tyler if he can prove himself worthy. Nora’s mom shows up at the showcase. Does any of this sound familiar?
Step Up is part inspirational youth drama and part romance between a privileged girl and a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. It resembles a lot of other movies, but the one that kept coming to my mind was Save the Last Dance. That film also used a lot of these elements (or variations of them) but to greater effect. Both movies follow a formula, and neither strays very far off the path. The difference is that Save the Last Dance exemplified the formula at its most effective, whereas Step Up feels more rote, like it’s simply going through the motions.
Some of the problem comes from the young stars. Channing Tatum and Jenna Duwan both show promise as actors, but at this point in their careers, they don’t have the charisma to carry us through the story. It feels like Tyler and Nora fall in love because the screenplay requires them to, not because there’s any chemistry between them. (For a comparison, see Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas in the aforementioned Save the Last Dance). The film’s subplots also feel truncated. Some screen time is given to Miles and his unrequited crush and also to Nora’s predictably jerky boyfriend. However, neither of these things is developed in a way so as to be interesting.
Amazingly, Step Up avoids one cliché – the one I hate the most. I was fully expecting that scene where Nora’s mother has a sudden change of heart and walks into the auditorium just as her daughter is triumphantly dancing in the big showcase. This time, mother and daughter talk it out beforehand. That’s a nice change-up. I wish the movie had tinkered with the formula like that a little more.
There is lots of music dancing here, naturally, and that’s where Step Up shows some sparkle. Director Anne Fletcher is a well-known choreographer who knows how to put together a dance number. Tatum and Duwan are natural hoofers who bring energy and fun to these sequences. I’m not much of a dancer myself, but I’ve always enjoyed watching other people bust some funky moves. In this movie, you never go more than a few minutes without seeing some kind of dancing. It’s always entertaining and infectious to watch.
To be completely fair, there is nothing about this film that I would classify as bad. Despite the immensely enjoyable dancing, it just didn’t quite work for me because I’ve seen it all before. Realistically speaking, this is a nice, inoffensive little movie that won’t knock the socks off those of us who know the time-tested formula but will enthrall younger viewers who are unfamiliar with it. Every generation finds an entry point for all the different cinematic genres and formulas. That theory accounts for the success of pictures like She’s All That and Varsity Blues. It’s quite possible that Step Up will be one of those movies for today’s adolescents.
( 1/2 out of four)
Step Up is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence and innuendo. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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