Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan have such an obvious chemistry the moment they lock eyes for the first time in Step Up, it’s no wonder they ended up marrying in real life. But because they’re trapped in a formula dance picture, the movie forces them to deny their feelings for a full hour. And then it forces them to temporarily split up again just to make the final act more dramatic.
But that’s the problem. Step Up isn’t dramatic nor romantic. It’s routine business with otherwise entertaining dance sequences thrown in to fill out the overlong running time.
Tatum plays an adopted, street-dancin’ wigger with Black friends who steal cars for quick cash. Dewan is a single-parented, classically trained ballerina in a bit of a crisis. Her dance partner breaks his ankle and she needs someone to rehearse with before a big showcase that is crucial for her professional future. Her partner is expected to recover in time for the performance.
Thanks to Tatum taking the fall for his friends after they all vandalize Dewan’s arts school upon leaving a house party (where Tatum gets into a fight with a jealous boyfriend over his Vanilla Ice-like dance moves with his girlfriend), his punishment is to perform 200 hours of community service there. How convenient.
In the beginning, all he does is clean. But after seeing Dewan, he wants to fill in for her injured partner. (It sure beats vacuuming.) She only agrees after some of her fellow students bomb their auditions with her. (Really? You guys can’t lift this tiny human being without falling? Please.)
Inevitably, because they come from completely different worlds, it’s an awkward start. She’s old school, he’s street. She’s disciplined, he’s lackadaisical. Tatum unsurprisingly quits right away before being shamed into coming back. (He has a reputation for giving up too easily.) But eventually, over time, he commits, albeit up to a point (he tends to show up when he wants to, if he wants to, and not always promptly) and ultimately convinces her to do more of a hybrid routine for her showcase, something less stiff and traditional and with a group of dancers, one that the school’s director (the well-dressed Rachel Griffiths) openly considers risky.
Which, of course, is a good sign all will go well in the end. But, of course, there are contrived complications leading up to that inevitable moment. Dewan is dating a douchey pop singer, a fellow student, who uses their mutual DJ friend to get a record deal without bringing him on board. The DJ friend, who is always suggesting music for her showcase routine, likes Dewan’s girlfriend but she too is dating a douchey pop singer albeit one a little older than her.
Both relationships are doomed to fail. Dewan dumps the douchey pop singer for mistreating her DJ pal. And her girlfriend spots her older boyfriend, the other douchey pop singer, making out with somebody backstage after they perform with the DJ friend at a club together.
When Dewan’s partner for the showcase performance recovers as expected, Tatum, knowing full well this arrangement was only temporary, takes the split personally. He quietly mopes and refuses to take her calls. Then, unsurprisingly, Dewan’s original partner gets hurt again, leaving her in the exact same position she was in at the start of the film.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen next.
Step Up became something of a surprise success in 2006 as it would go on to spawn four sequels and put Tatum on the path to stardom. How disappointing that the film itself is not surprising. Consider the following:
Dewan’s mom is not supportive of her daughter’s dream, that is until we get close to the end when she suddenly remembers how important dancing is to her, a very familiar and not-so-sincere change of heart we’ve seen so many times before. (Her dead father, a shipping executive who succumbed to cancer, was always on Dewan’s side.) Her loud shout of “Bravo!” in the final act is a bit much and is classic overcompensation.
One of Tatum’s friends feels rejected when his wigger pal keeps bailing on pick-up games with him and his younger brother only to be sitting in the audience cheering him on during the showcase performance. (Before then, he has a problem with rich white folks taking away his homey.) Speaking of Skinny, the aforementioned younger brother, the second he steals a car from a notorious character in their neighbourhood, you pretty much know his fate is sealed. By the way, that whole subplot feels completely unnecessary in a PG-film about aspiring teen dancers (it’s also not very well executed, if you’ll forgive the pun) but it’s one reason Tatum eventually makes peace with his hurt friend, yet another predictable moment.
And then, there’s Tatum’s hope to switch in his final year from his current public high school to this arts school that has changed his life. But will he convince the always skeptical Griffiths he’s worth admitting? Can the poor kid with nothing be accepted with all the rich kids who have everything? It all depends on what his heart tells him to do in the final act. Only those who have never seen a movie before will be shocked by his decision.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 7, 2017