Take “Fame” and suck out all the sex and nudity, take “Romeo and Juliet” and drain it of the preteen suicide and iambic pentameter, and you have “Step Up,” a thoroughly formulaic but mildly enjoyable dance movie.
Josh Hartnett look-alike Channing Tatum stars as Tyler, a tough kid from a Baltimore foster home who gets arrested during a vandalism spree with his buddies at a prestigious arts school and is sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service there.
Jenna Dewan, who resembles a pre-Scientology Katie Holmes, stars as Nora, a privileged ballerina at the school who’s obsessed with getting her senior showcase piece just right in hopes that it will land her a spot with an important dance company.
Of course, they’re unexpectedly drawn to each other through their shared love of dance, even though allies on both sides disapprove of their pairing. (Rachel Griffiths is appropriately condescending as the school’s dean; Damaine Radcliff and Da’Shawn Washington provide a few laughs as the friends who feel Tyler has abandoned them.)
Tyler ends up filling in during rehearsals when Nora’s partner injures his ankle — a classic premise for all song-and-dance movies — and the two fuse styles while falling in love in a series of obligatory montage sequences. He teaches her his Vanilla Ice moves; she teaches him to plie and pirouette, and gets him thinking that maybe attending this school wouldn’t be so bad after all.
And who could blame him? The place is buzzing with non-threatening artistic expression. Students play the violin and harmonize in the hallways — they’re gonna live forever! They’re gonna learn how to fly!
But you can sort of see the appeal of “Step Up,” especially during the dead of summer. It’s totally mindless eye candy: Everyone’s strikingly great-looking, everyone’s preternaturally talented. And it’s a decent excuse to trot out a variety of random musical figures past and present, including Heavy D as a friendly neighborhood gangster, R&B star Mario as an aspiring producer, and former Ashlee Simpson flame Josh Henderson as a wannabe pop singer.
What are the chances of these people ever sharing the screen again?
“Step Up” is the first feature from choreographer-turned-director Anne Fletcher, so at least the dance sequences are refreshing and high-energy. That’s more than we can say for the script, which was co-written by Duane Adler — who also wrote “Save the Last Dance,” yet another film that “Step Up” so obviously resembles — and Melissa Rosenberg.
Cliched talk about following your dreams gives way to an event that takes the movie in a dark direction, which will subsequently provide renewed inspiration for everyone involved.
Clearly, “Step Up” isn’t for the jaded. But regardless of your internal state, the movie will make you think about your exterior. It will inspire you to put down the fork, get off the couch and attempt to get your body in shape so that you, too, can wear a wife-beater tank top wherever you go with complete confidence.