August 17, 2006

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Step Up (PG-13)
Dance solves social ills in Step Up, which features Channing Tatum, who perfectly demonstrates the infuriating expression of 20-something boy stupid.

I’m not saying he necessarily is stupid. His Internet Movie Database bio says that he went to military school and some college before he embarked on a career that has included modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch and roles in such fine films as She’s the Man and Supercross. He’s tall, he’s built, he’s handsome in an Abercrombie & Fitch kind of frat-boy way. But he has this look on his face — a mixture of entitlement, the belief that he knows everything and a smug sense of superiority. It’s a look that’s as fashionable as the studied-casual clothes Tatum used to model. On television and in movies, I find this look extremely off-putting. It’s the visual equivalent of the valley girl up-speak. In real life, when I encounter this look, it takes all of my willpower not to smack the 23-year-old meathead wearing it.

So Step Up starts with a count against it because it makes me feel hopelessly old.

Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) perhaps comes by his smug stupid look honestly — he’s grown up a foster kid on the mean streets of Baltimore and learned to get by on his willingness to pick a fight and his ability to dance. (What, you don’t believe mad dancing skillz can help you survive poverty, crime and neglect? Well, my friend, this movie is going to be a tough climb for you.) After he’s caught vandalizing an arts high school, he’s forced to do community service there, mostly of the janitorial variety. But, hey, what’s this? A somewhat prissy dance student named Nora (Jenna Dewan) who needs a partner to help practice her potentially career-making dance? Hey, wait a minute, Tyler can dance!

Before you can say “you’ve got your street flare in my structured sense of choreography,” these kids join up and begin to practice a dance that not only could help Nora gain a spot in a professional dance company but also shows Tyler an alternate future to his current life plan of low-paying jobs and occasional car stealing.

In many ways, Step Up is Save the Last Dance in reverse — with the poor kid coming to the rich kid’s school instead of the suburban girl coming to the inner city school. Here, however, the arts school is not nearly as white bread as the school Julia Stiles showed up at was street. In face the arts school is appropriately multi-ethnic with kids practicing all manner of dance, music and visual arts — from Nora’s modern dance to the kid who sampled classical music for the hip-hop song that eventually scores her presentation. Duane Adler (one of the writers on Step Up and a writer on Save the Last Dance) seems to have decided to go much smaller in this reworking (a meeting of individuals rather than cultures). When you’re turning in the same homework, I guess you have to find some way to make it look fresh.

Another polish of the script and this might have worked except that Step Up has nothing near the acting talents of Stiles, Kerry Washington or Sean Patrick Thomas and I’m not even being sarcastic when I say that (mostly). Tatum has two settings — stupid smug look and stupid smug look with loud voice (for the dramatic scenes). Dewan has developed nothing beyond her strange Denise Richard squishy-face facial expressions. The strangest performance, however, was Rachel Griffiths’ (best known as Brenda on Six Feet Under), who played the school director. She said her lines with a breathiness that suggested she had just run up several flights of stairs and a weird approach to enunciation (perhaps to an Australian a Maryland accent sounds British).

Step Up is a weak mess that seems more like a rehearsal for a dance movie than the finished product. D

— Amy Diaz


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