As a film critic, I am sometimes expected to review films with a history, and whenever possible I try to educate myself on that history beforehand. Last week I reviewed Dinner for Schmucks, based on the French comedy The Dinner Game. I was going to watch the original film before seeing the remake, but ultimately decided against it because watching the same jokes only a week or two apart would probably result in an unfair comparison. This weekend I will be reviewing Step Up 3D, the third in the remarkably popular Step Up franchise. I have a passing familiarity with the second film, but never actually sat down to watch the series in its entirety. This week I will rectify this situation with a look back at the guilty-pleasure franchise that shocked the world by being mildly tolerable.
The date was August 11, 2006 when Step Up was first unleashed unto the world. Despite critical indifference and a release date in a crowded summer that also contained such hits as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Da Vinci Code, this little amalgamation of Dirty Dancing and The Cutting Edge ended up making over $20 million dollars at the box office opening weekend, and ultimately grossed over $114 million worldwide. That’s not bad for a film that seems to contribute nothing new whatsoever to the world at large.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s Channing Tatum stars as street dancer Tyler Gage, the man with the most implausibly manly name since Arnold Schwarzenegger played “John Matrix” in Commando over 20 years prior. He lives in the slums of Baltimore. Not the actual slums of Baltimore, mind you. Although some of the cast members of “The Wire” show up from time to time, Tyler Gage’s Baltimore is actually a pretty decent neighborhood that only seems to look impoverished because people have to string up their laundry in their backyards. Tyler has two best friends: Mac (Damain Radcliff) and Mac’s little brother “Skinny” (De’Shawn Washington). Skinny spends most of the film trying to impress his two surrogate father figures. They in turn spend most of the film making homophobic remarks about Skinny and teaching him how to steal cars. You spend most of the film waiting for Skinny to get shot so Mac and Tyler can learn a valuable lesson about responsibility. But to Step Up’s credit they at least wait until the very last minute to pop a cap in his annoying little ass.
At the start of the film, Tyler, Mac and Skinny break into an art school and vandalize the place, destroying right off the bat not just the theater department, but any sympathy we might have had for the characters. Tyler regains a tiny bit of that sympathy by taking the rap for his friends. He’s sentenced to 200 hours of community service, to be completed at the school he vandalized. When Tyler arrives there during proper business hours he finds himself smack dab in the middle of an impossible Mecca for self-expression. Kids play classical music in the hallways, even while class is in session, which seems like poor scheduling to me. Or at least shoddy hall monitoring.
Tyler meets up with the disapproving Director Gordon, played by Academy Award-nominee Rachel Griffiths, and throughout most of the film she will continue to disapprove, pretty much non-stop. She tells Tyler that he caused so much damage to the school that someone’s scholarship would have to be denied this year. We don’t see that kid, but presumably they’re pretty pissed off at Tyler Gage. (Frankly, given what we saw of his crime spree, I’d be surprised if it added up to more than a thousand dollars worth of repairs, which the school is probably saving anyway by short-changing the custodial staff since Tyler’s going to do so much work for free. So her guilt-trip seems a little empty, at worst.) Griffiths brings dignity to her small, thankless role, but one gets the impression that she took the part as a favor. Presumably someone was writing a dictionary and needed a good example for the phrase “Slumming It.”
Before long, Tyler’s funky fresh dance moves in the parking lot impress Nora Clark (Tamara’s Jenna Dewan), who needs a temporary dance partner for her senior project while her real partner nurses a sprained ankle. Nora holds tryouts, but for some reason not a single dancer in this particular dance school can dance. We watch as an army of effeminate, scrawny sophomores struggle to lift the 80-pound Jenna Dewan in a misguided attempt to recapture the magic of Dirty Dancing. Tyler finally impresses the hell out of her by keeping her aloft in mid-air for a few seconds. Hell, I could do that.
And so begins the bulk of Step Up: a ridiculous miasma of recycled plot points, inept acting and tired pop-and-lock routines. Tyler and Nora teach each other valuable lessons about the value of their own particular dancing styles. Nora’s boyfriend turns out to be an insensitive jerk (what a shock: a high school romance that doesn’t last forever). Mac and Skinny get jealous of the time Tyler spends with his fellow white people (and indeed some of the whitest black people ever captured on celluloid). And of course, Skinny gets shot. At least they don’t try to milk as much pathos out of his funeral as 2001’s awful inner city Little League underdog nightmare movie Hardball.
So why, exactly, did Step Up become the success it is today? As easy (and fun) as it is to criticize, it’s also impossible not to recognize the movie’s obvious charms. Or rather, its only charm. What Step Up lacks in quality and significance it more than makes up for in sincerity. Although every cliché ever conceived for this kind of movie is struck, director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) never shies away from them for a second. She never seems embarrassed to play scenes about how Nora’s mother (“The Wire’s” Deirdre Lovejoy) disapproves of so-called “dancing” in a completely straightforward fashion, as if no one had ever filmed them before, nor is she above the tearful revelation of how proud her Mom is of her half an act later as things are wrapping up. Sometimes the dopey performances by the likes of Channing Tatum fail Fletcher, however. When Tyler and Nora inevitably break up towards the end of the film, one of their mutual friends tells Tyler that Nora has been upset about the whole ordeal. Tyler says, “Did you see her tears?” But Channing Tatum delivers the line the way he does every other utterance, like a wide-eyed frat boy, all smiles and deflection. As a result he seems like the world’s biggest asshole.
What’s most unusual about Step Up, to me at least, is that a film so lacking in dramatic tension achieved such popularity. Titanic comes to mind, in contrast. That was another dopey romance, filled with tired plot developments and underwritten young protagonists, but at the very least the odds were completely stacked against those heroes, even before the iceberg. The mean boyfriend was actually threatening, not just self-involved, and their class struggles were over-the-top but at least a genuine obstacle in the path of their relationship. The message Step Up seems to have about getting out of rough, crime-ridden neighborhoods is that anything can be accomplished if you don’t develop a defeatist attitude, which is pretty naïve. Compare Step Up to the superior Save The Last Dance, which actually tackled issues like cultural divides and gang violence in an intelligent way (Duane Adler is a credited screenwriter on both films, for whatever that’s worth), and Step Up feels like an overdeveloped but decently choreographed episode of “Hannah Montana” in comparison. Skinny might get shot towards the end in an attempt to pay lip service to the seriousness of street crime, but he dies because he steals a guy’s car while he’s out robbing a liquor store, then drives it down the street and parks it in front of the dance club where that same guy hangs out all the time. If that’s not just culling the herd, I don’t know what is. Even the uppercrust characters aren’t free from diminished dramatic tension. If Nora’s senior project doesn’t wow the audience, she’ll lose her chance to join an important dance company. And do you know what happens then? She’ll have to go to Cornell. The only way I could have less sympathy for her plight is if she scribbled her dance routines on original copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 and drove a fully restored Tucker with gold spinning rims to class every day.
Step Up may have no respect for the audience, but it does respect the formula, and it’s only through strict adherence to the clichés established by other, infinitely better movies that it manages to hold an audience’s interest throughout its entire 98 minute running time. The dancing helps a bit, but compared to many other movies it feels relatively routine. Many of the actors are talented physical performers, but the choreography appears unimaginative. Channing Tatum in particular seems over-reliant on bizarre shoulder spasms, and Jenna Dewan apparently isn’t above resorting to “hairography” when the time finally comes for her to let loose. The lifeless soundtrack does them no favors whatsoever. There’s a particularly pathetic scene in which Tatum and Dewan dance on a rooftop while clearly falling in love, but the song is so lifeless and unmemorable that their entire relationship suffers as a result. Tatum and Dewan would go on to marry each other in real life. Presumably they used up most of their chemistry off-camera.
Step Up is an awkward start to a hit franchise, but its refreshingly direct storytelling style and naïve belief in teenaged romance firmly places it in the tradition of such other barely competent but highly successful exercises in melodramatic nonsense as Twilight and A Summer Place.
Now that you’re caught up with Step Up, check back later this week for our look back at Step Up 2 The Streets, where we will examine the proper way to pronounce the title. Should you pause after saying the “2” or just plow straight through it? Check back soon for all the answers!