I object on principle to movies that pretend to make sense. Step Up begins with Hollywood's favorite new plot excuse: alternative sentencing sends rebellious teen into indentured craftsmanship (cf. the 2006 movie with the indistinguishable title Stick It—now there's a double bill). This time, it's hunky Tyler (Channing Tatum), a low-class lower-class street tough in Baltimore. After he and his droogs break into the Maryland School of the Arts and trash what appears to be the set of Julius Caesar, we segue from the Clockwork Orange Afterschool Special into a faux-Fame near-remake of Take the Lead, also this year's movie.
As Tyler broods through his two hundred hours of community service (in a kind of Sisyphean hell, he's expected to mop and vacuum underfoot of crowds of students), dance major Nora (Jenna Dewan, who was in Take the Lead, for crying out loud) sweats through rehearsals for a hugely important industry showcase performance. The manufactured drama kicks into high gear when Nora's dance partner sprains his ankle, and Nora's boyfriend (Josh Henderson) turns down her plea for a rehearsal partner to focus on his music, which turns out to be Justin Timberlaky hip-pop.
Even though she's surrounded by dancers, all the upperclassmen are overextended, leaving Nora to audition sophomores and freshmen. Unfortunately, they're all the scrawny love children of Jerry Lewis and Gilda Radner and can barely stand much less handle the all-important lift. But wait! Is that the 6'1" janitorial hottie out in the parking lot, dancing? My, he's an uncouth roughneck, but perhaps, just perhaps I can mold his raw talent into the dance partner of my dreams! That's right: she'd rather teach her hottie mook from scratch than teach a trained dance student to handle the lift. Well, I just hope sense is enjoying its holiday.
"Y'all are talking about dancing like it's rocket science or something," Tyler responds, but soon he's eating crow in a little girls' ballet class and learning that he can't do ballet in saggy jeans. Ah, but Nora, too, must learn! To loosen up her "stiff...boring" ballet and incorporate the rhythms of the streets! Look, people—hip-hop dance has already infiltrated dance schools. No big whoop. But that inconvenient fact wouldn't suit the film's hyped-up drama. Like Take the Lead, Step Up begins by intercutting old-school and new-school dance, in this case, ballet dancers versus hip-hop street dancers no more realistic than the twirling gang kids in West Side Story.
As your brain screams, "Will these two just get it on already?" 113 minutes of foreplay continue to tick away with extraneous plotlines. Nora's friend Lucy (Drew Sidora) also has a jerky boyfriend, destined to be replaced by Ty's new musician buddy Miles (Mario). We also get Tyler's home life, complete with alcoholic dad who crows, "He'll never make it. He's never stayed with anything in his life."
Then there's Tyler's best friend Mac (Damaine Radcliff), who tells him, "You quit everything you start and you know it." I think screenwriters Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg are trying to tell me something. Tyler and Mac are casual car thieves, setting a bad example for Mac's mouthy younger brother "Skinny" (De'Shawn Washington). Both characters are excuses for bonus eleventh-hour melodrama, the latter in a crime gone wrong and the former when Mac bursts into the dance studio and cries, "Tell me I'm not seeing this, Ty!" If only, Mac. If only.
Believe it or not, Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under) signed on to play the school's headmistress. Unfortunately for director Anne Fletcher, Griffiths appears to have been on Xanax the whole time. Fletcher fares better with Channing Tatum, whose low-pitched speaking style and committed physicality are well-suited to smolder through this undemanding material and come out smelling like a rose. In fact, Tatum's moves give the film its only memorable moments.
That Tatum and Dewan can indeed dance makes the absurd finale all the more maddening. Aside from the crazy plot twist that enables the show to go on, the dance piece itself is poorly conceived, both as a showcase for Nora (she generously adds a whole chorus of dancers and puts Tyler front and center as often as herself) and thematically (a good dance tells a story or, at least, conveys an emotion—this one does neither). It is flashy, though, the lesson dance movies have learned well from the 1980s and the age of MTV.