Review: Step Up
When we acquiesce to see bad movies, on some level we hope that they turn out to be like Step Up – hopelessly flawed but essentially inoffensive fluff that is consistently entertaining and invites (intentionally or not) the audience to complete the viewing experience with their own quips and “wtf?” mugging. Watching Step Up in solitude would be a chore, but catching it with some friends with a high tolerance for camp and a talent for inspired heckling is a gift from the cinema gods.
Channing Tatum stars as buff, somewhat thuggish white boy Tyler Gage, who is quickly established as a dance-happy Federline-esque lothario prone to picking fights with gun-toting black dudes. After nearly getting shot, Tyler and his two best friends (both of whom are black, it is worth noting – the film makes a solid effort to present an integrated cast, though on-screen miscegenation is apparently off-limits) end up breaking into a private school for the arts and trash the drama department for cheap kicks. The boys are caught, and noble Tyler takes the fall for his friends, and finds himself sentenced to 200 hours of community service at the school. A few quick plot points later, Tyler becomes the interim dance partner of the super cute and mildly ambitious Nora, who comes from an upper middle class background obviously at odds with his ghetto roots. From this point onward, the movie proceeds to earnestly carry out every cliché that it can, cheerfully refusing to avoid any Hollywood inevitability while also functioning within its own bizarro world logic.
Though there were certainly moments when I wish I could have hijacked the film and had scenes play out in a more ridiculous manner (for example, in my version of Step Up, when Tyler's pals first visit him on the campus, they would have gone on another inexplicable rampage, mowing down students in their busted old car and breaking the windows of the school with chains, all without any direct repercussions), the by-the-book storyline is ideal for audience participation, since it allows us to pick up on telegraphed plot points and find ourselves gleefully rooting for the demise of Tyler's best friend's little brother, who is pretty much marked for death from the very first scene. The predictability also allows us to be surprised by the film's more peculiar moments, such as when Tyler discovers that his young foster siblings are also pretty rad dancers, which in context is a completely random and superfluous development.
Barring a few early scenes which were apparently shot on location in the Rhythm Nation, Step Up is set in Baltimore, which suits the film's narrative in terms of presenting its peculiar socio-economic and racial divide, though the movie only ever makes half-hearted gestures in regards to any possible racial and class tensions that do not involve the poor characters being mildly resentful of their privileged counterparts. Drugs apparently aren't even a factor in this version of Baltimore, which is clearly not the case in our reality, or the one presented in HBO's brilliant series The Wire, though it is sort of fun to pretend that the movie is set in that show's universe since Diedre “Asst. State's Atty. Rhonda Pearlman” Lovejoy stars as Nora's stuffy mother, and a key scene is set at “Omar's party.” I was slightly let down when that kid met his unavoidable doom at the hand of gang members, and they didn't turn out to be part of Stringer Bell's drug ring.
Lovejoy's fellow HBO alum Rachel Griffiths is also slumming in the film in a larger role as the stern but kindly headmistress of the school. Though she lends her role a certain unlikely warmth, Griffiths stubbornly insists on giving a performance that is perhaps a bit too rich for the material, making her seem vaguely silly when she delivers her lines in a strangely imperious, 'luuded-out version of her “Brenda” voice from Six Feet Under. There's nothing vague about her appearance at the end of the film, as she's decked out in a highly questionable suit and sporting an unfortunate hairstyle that makes her resemble Jack Nicholson as The Joker when she's bathed in the white light of a spotlight on stage.
For a film about dancing, Step Up is curiously lacking in sexuality, and stuck in a state of near constant gay panic. Just as there are no references to drugs in the movie, there is likewise no mention of sex at all, whatsoever, even in spite of clear sexual tension and some suggestive dance moves. Tyler is apparently the world's most chaste and chivalrous thug, and much of the movie enforces a strict crypto-conservative social order. When Tyler arrives at the school, he comes across as the rugged alpha male savior of an institution populated entirely by effete, feminine boys who are obviously unfit for hotties like Nora, who is initially involved with the school's closest approximation of a “big man on campus”: an arrogant backstabbing metrosexual Justin Timberlake wannabe who we are meant to distrust at least in part for his relative femininity. In a particularly memorable scene, she auditions a succession of tiny, timid young men who dodge her moves and strain to lift her tiny body before Tyler steps in to provide some much-needed hyper-masculinity.
Everything about the film -- including the severe “bros before hos” stance of Tyler's best friend Mac, who erupts in an overwrought fit of jealousy when he discovers that Tyler has been ditching him for a girl (of all things!) in spite of some very homophobic remarks early in the movie – is in support of a version of reality that seems like an elitist conception of an inner-city utopia in which upper class white culture is capable of rehabilitating any hardened street kid entirely on its own terms. Naturally, this notion is hilarious, and so is this movie.
(This review is dedicated to the memory of Skinny Carter, 1991 – 2006. R.I.P, buddy.)