STEP UP is a surprisingly wholesome bit of fluff with an amiably charismatic cast and a script that should be cited for violating the basic tenets of solid scriptwriting. Uneven, undecided, and rife with everything except aliens from space and a natural disaster, it’s further hobbled by cliches, bouts of stale dialogue, inadvisable turns into ham-handed melodrama, and ho-hum predictability. Fortunately, it’s also rife with some of the best dance sequences put on film in a long time, and a director, former dancer Anne Fletcher, who knows how to capture not just the excitement of dance, but also the sheer ecstatic joy of it.
The story is classic opposites attract. He’s Tyler (hunky Channing Tatum), a kid from the projects going nowhere fast except to juvie lock-up and then prison. She’s Nora (lovely Jenna Dewa), the fiery dance student at the Maryland School of the Arts, who has drive, passion, dazzling talent, and a mother who would rather she attend an Ivy League school after graduation. They meet cute when Tyler is sentence to community service at the school after he trashes its auditorium, and Nora catches sight of him as the janitor’s apprentice tidying up the rehearsal room. She also catches sight of him chilling out back by the dumpster with his homeboys Mac (Damaine Radcliffe) and Mac’s kid brother, Skinny (De’Shawn Washington). Chilling in this case being an impromptu hip-hop solo using a car as a prop and as a dance partner. When Nora’s dance partner sprains his ankle, and she can’t find anyone else, she reluctantly teams up with Tyler to rehearse her self-choreographed routine for the big Fall Showcase that will decide her future. Sparks of all descriptions fly and, hormones being what they are, and the dance number being what it is, lifts and all, vague distaste turns to inevitable attraction.
Tatum, while very pretty and very stoic throughout, nonetheless has a gift for light comedy that helps elevate the material he is given to work with. The dry ironic tone he strikes while delivering a punch line shows some serious chops, even when on screen with Rachel Griffiths, who plays the schools requisite no-nonsense administrator. As for the romantic piffle he is made to mouth while Tyler is wooing Nora, no one could have made that succeed. What does, succeed, and eminently well, is when they hit the dance floor. In the best sequences, their getting used to each others styles, he’s street, she’s classical, make for the perfect vehicle for advancing their relationship with flirting, bickering, and grudging admiration. And comedy. Tatum with prodigious height and admirable musculature attempting a ball-change contract is just wrong on just about every level, but Tatum plays it for all it’s worth with a game face that says he’s all about humoring the lady so she can see that for herself. When they do finally a dance rapport that mixes their styles, it’s a thing of beauty that remains true to both while being something new and better all around.
The film, while showing much in the way of mayhem committed by Tyler and company, boosting cars, partying down, and side betting on pick-up B-ball, also keeps them firmly outside thug-dom, instead, they are more like delicate delinquents, the swagger and attitude strictly a peer thing to keep them from becoming toast on the street. It’s symbolic of the concept as a whole. The bar is set low, perhaps to not distract the audience from the dancing, at school and at parties, where the participants sometimes fall into tight choreography as can only happen in a movie with a group of perfect strangers on a dance floor. There are a few other highlights, including some nicely tart smart-alec kids such as Skinny and Tyler’s foster sister, Camille (Alyson Stoner), the parallel romance between Nora’s best pal Lucy (Drew Sidora) and Miles (Mario) a budding musician at the school who pines for her from afar while she only has eyes for a lounge-lizard singer, and a show-stopping solo by Drew just before she discovers her paramour’s true nature. That bit of business parallels Nora’s discovery that her boyfriend is also less than terrific, though audience members might have been able to deduce that at first sight from his complicated, overly constructed hairdo.
STEP UP isn’t the must-see movie of the summer, but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. If you really, really must.