Hip-Hop And Ballet Don't Mix
By Cole Smithey
The dubious concept of blending ballet with hip-hop dancing is explored as far as line dance choreography will allow in this cliché-riddled romance. The film coasts entirely on the strength of charismatic leads Jenna Dewan and Channing Tatum. Tyler Gage (Tatum) is a ghetto hoodlum sentenced to community service at Baltimore’s Maryland School of the Arts for trashing the school’s stage facilities with his car-thief buddies. Cupid’s arrow finds its mark when Tyler offers to stand in as Ballerina Nora’s (Dewan) dance partner in her upcoming senior showcase. Nora’s fickle demeanor and Tyler’s lack of focus threaten to undermine the couple’s romance even as the psychic burden of Tyler’s inner-city background amplifies his sense of desperation.
Tyler is a white kid growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. He passes his time stealing cars and working small-time hustles with his best friend Mac (Damaine Radcliff) and Mac's feisty kid brother Skinny (De'Shawn Washington). The three buddies are goofing around one night when Skinny breaks a window on the ground level of a large building. He disappears inside. Tyler and Mac follow the boy and explore the empty halls of what turns out to be an arts school. In a telling scene the three boys find the school's auditorium and try on carious costumes that inspire them into a thoughtless frenzy of vandalism. The kids view artistic endeavors with anti-intellectual contempt. When a security guard arrives Tyler allows himself to be captured to let his friends escape.
Tyler quickly trades in his mop for a girlfriend after he is sentenced to perform community service as a janitor at the vandalized school. That Tyler so effortlessly casts off his court-appointed janitorial duties in favor of dancing with Nora is a sizeable pothole in a highly-rutted story. Silly dance sequences propel the movie into a tailspin reminiscent of a hummingbird with motion sickness.
Choreographer Anne Fletcher (who choreographed on the masterfully slight “Bring It On”) commits an obvious mistake in designing the dance sequences in her directorial debut. “Step Up,” as the film’s title vaguely signals, is a story about dance, and more specifically the potential synthesis between the highbrow art of ballet with the street dance form of hip-hop. But the screenwriters (Melissa Rosenberg and Duane Adler) fail to delineate any mutual antipathy between practitioners of these vastly divergent styles. It falls to the choreographer, in this case an overburdened neophyte director, to relate that aspect to the story. Sadly, no number of endless dance sequences can get the job done. When Tyler and Nora go to a club together Fletcher sends the entire crowd on the dance floor into an embarrassing variation on the “electric slide” that middle-aged suburban housewives dream about performing at the next wedding they attend.
"Step Up" shares unfortunate similarities with this year's other high school dance movie "Take The Lead," which starred Antonio Banderas as a ballroom dance teacher who teaches life's lessons to a posse of underprivileged kids. Just as that film relied upon a gratuitous sub-plot of urban violence, "Step Up" makes a special effort to exact a frivolous pound of flesh from a secondary character. An unnecessary death occurs late in the story, apparently in order to set up a phony conflict that forces Tyler and Mac to make peace and behave more responsibly. "Step Up" scarcely grazes the surface of its primary subjects: dance and the struggle of impoverished and privileged teens alike to make it in the inner city. No one in the story tries hard enough to make us care about either. Neither did the filmmakers.
Rated PG-13. 103 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)