'Step Up': Dreary Dancing

A familiar routine: Jenna Dewan finds a last-minute dance partner, and more, in Channing Tatum.
A familiar routine: Jenna Dewan finds a last-minute dance partner, and more, in Channing Tatum. (By Phillip Caruso -- Buena Vista Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006

So what makes a great dance movie? The quick and easy answer: very little you'll find in "Step Up," about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with freestyle moves, and a prissy student at an elite dance school who needs a replacement partner fast.

"Step Up" lacks the passion for dance found in the great films of the genre (the entire Astaire-Rogers canon), the kinda-great ("Dirty Dancing," "Footloose") and even the guiltily enjoyable ("Flashdance"). And it fails to do what those classics do: transfer the performers' passion for dance to the audience.

Think of the way Gene Kelly clearly loves pirouetting through puddles as he's "Singin' in the Rain" about being in love-love-love. The way John Travolta moves like silver mercury in "Saturday Night Fever," with the sparkly-eyed confidence that he owns the disco floor. And not just the dance steps but the acting conveys that foot-tapping enthusiasm. Simply the way Jennifer Grey looks at Patrick Swayze as he rocks that pelvis in "Dirty Dancing," or how Kevin Bacon sweats sweet rebellion as he sneakers his way into the heart of Lori Singer in "Footloose."

In "Step Up," the couple's love of dance isn't primary or soulful. At the beginning, she's already considering her Plan B in case a dance career doesn't materialize; he's just as happy on the basketball court as the dance floor. It seems neither would suffer if he or she missed a week of dancing; imagine Fred and Ginger's spiritual dissolution if the ballroom were closed for even a day.

Even 2001's formulaic "Save the Last Dance," starring Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas -- which "Step Up" has a distracting, almost legally actionable similarity to -- managed to convey an enthusiasm for dance to the audience.

Romance is always at the center of these movies, even the bad ones. Which is why we know from the start of this film -- which is set and was filmed in Baltimore -- that Tyler (Channing Tatum) and Nora (Jenna Dewan) are romantically pre-locked and loaded for each other. They collide when Tyler, who is forced to perform community service at the Maryland School of Arts, catches Nora's eye as she prepares for her school's annual showcase. When her dance partner injures his ankle, Nora searches in vain for a substitute. The only available partners don't have the strength to hold her lifts. But then -- holy 42nd Street! -- there's Tyler mopping in the background, the very handsome boy she just spied showing off his moves to his pals in the parking lot.

Do we get the picture?

Tatum, the hunky object of Amanda Bynes's fancy in "She's the Man" and an engaging basketballer in "Coach Carter," is the best thing about this uninspired formula-thon. Put that down to more than cute-lug presence. As Tyler, he has some nifty routines that suggest his spine is made of rubber, and he clearly knows a thing or two about physical comedy. As Nora, Dewan -- a former back up dancer for Janet Jackson -- can perform maneuvers (as the great sports writer Dan Jenkins once said) that only my cat can do. As far as the acting goes, Tatum seems to be doing a combination of Vanilla Ice and Eminem, but the fusion is forced; Dewan's performance is vanilla, too -- with plain-Jane sprinkles.

In the movie's one all-too-briefly-enjoyable section, the naturally gifted Tyler tries to figure out his arabesques from his piqués, while the disciplined, classically trained Nora attempts to get down with his unorthodox routines. Their initial awkwardness is engaging, and these are the scenes where we feel something for them. First-time director Anne Fletcher, a veteran movie choreographer, is clearly in her element here; so is Tatum, whose initial uncertainty suggests a baggy-jeaned wild animal caught in the floodlights.

Alas, most of "Step Up" takes place away from the dance floor. Tyler and Nora, of course, become increasingly attracted to each other. (The Love Connection Moment? When their faces draw close and a shaft of sunlight glints in the space between their lips.) And you can set your watch to the remaining beats, including the Fabricated Tiff (Tyler says Nora uses people; Nora wails that she can't trust him), and the Sad Montage, in which we cross-cut between the two, as each stares meaningfully into the middle distance, convinced the affair is over, to a syrupy ballad.

Rachel Griffiths, the quirky, memorable Australian actress who played the haunted Brenda Chenowith in "Six Feet Under," is underused in the film as the school's fussy director. And as Tyler's best friend, Mac -- and the movie's comic relief -- Damaine Radcliff becomes unintentionally funny during an over-the-top jealous rant at Tyler for seeing so much of Nora. It's unlikely the filmmakers intended a gay-crush subplot, but that's how it comes off.

By the time that happens, we've already given up on making any meaningful connection with these characters -- our dance with them is long over.

Step Up (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes, brief violence and sexual innuendo.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company