Title: Step Up
Genre: Crime, Drama, Music
Director: Anne Fletcher
Screenwriters:Duane Adler, Melissa Rosenberg
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Damaine Radcliff
Step Up is a fairly bland opposite-sides-of-the-tracks romance that, if it weren’t for the considerable charms of its talented cast, would probably be worthless. As it stands, the film is depressingly predicable to the point of seeming uneventful — if every scene and emotional beat is visible an act in advance, why bother with a storyline? A potential redeeming facet is the dance sequences but, while the actors are certainly game and director Anne Fletcher is a celebrated choreographer, the dance aspects of the film never cohere.
Much of the film takes place at a prestigious Baltimore performing arts high school, which is portrayed as a sort of musicians’ Hogwarts, with violin virtuosos practicing in the hallways, and all of the students’ time is spent in studios or dance halls. After Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum), a lifelong foster kid from the Bad Part of Baltimore (aren’t they all?) breaks in, wreaks havoc, and is tackled by a security guard, he’s sentenced to community service working as a janitor in the building he damaged.
Alas, he doesn’t get to do much spraying and mopping. After meeting beautiful senior Nora (Jenna Dewan) who is working on her all-important senior showcase and needs a rehearsal partner, he shows her his dance moves, proves capable of lifting her from the ground, and a new star is born. A romance is also born, but in name only — though the film carries a PG-13 rating, it is obsessively chaste; we sense that Dewan and Tatum might have some real chemistry, if only the movie would let them do something — even an honest-to-goodness conversation would work.
But Step Up doesn’t have time for conversation. Instead of talking, it gets bogged down in silly, barely relevant subplots, one involving a peripheral romance between two other students at the high school (I swear the film pays more attention to them than to the leads), and another about car theft and gang warfare. The latter is silly and written in the broadest possible terms; the resolution is mawkish and entirely obvious. The film loses credibility when it insists on clichés.
When the stars actually get to appear on screen, they make most of this bearable. Channing Tatum has presence, if not personality; Jenna Dewan has both. The two are impressive dancers, and the movie is notable for mostly avoiding body doubles, at least as far as I could tell. Rachel Griffiths appears as the no-nonsense principal, and she is so effortlessly convincing that I believed the movie whenever she walked on. They are genuinely above the material, which doesn’t even make an effort to be anything other than generic.
The movie builds to a dance finale, which sadly doesn’t feel like the result of the leads’ collaboration, or of the rehearsals we were shown. It stands on its own, to a certain extent — Fletcher has a feel for putting these dance sequences on film, and she does more than merely put the dancers on stage, point and shoot — but it doesn’t function as a wrap-up and, frankly, is a bit underwhelming. For a while, I hoped that the dance would function as a grace-note ending, but no: the film drags out the final minutes to ensure a happy ending for everyone.
There’s a place for this sort of film, and Step Up isn’t terribly offensive. It moves quickly, wants to be liked, and is blessed with talent. But it’s just not interesting. We’ve seen it all before, and the movie adds little to hold our attention. It is too content with its bare-bones formula.