'Step Up 3D' Falls Down ... Except When It Dances
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
3-D can't save the latest entry in the "Step Up" franchise. Mostly, the annoying process just gets in the way of the series' main claim to fame: take-your-breath-away, hyperkinetic street-style dancing. And 3-D sure can't pump up the lame dramatic scenes filling in between the exuberant jams. (Praise where it's due: 3-D does lend satisfying depth to the smooth-as-silk trajectory of a cab cruising through neon-lit Times Square ... but, then, Scorsese did it realer and better.) Though director Jon Chu brings admirable energy and imagination to "Step Up 3D"'s dance extravaganzas, he can't animate shockingly wooden performances or cure stumble-footed dialogue. Only a way-talented crew of acting coaches and screenwriters could have whipped this cornball musical into something more than amateur night.
"Step Up" (2006) and "Step Up 2: The Streets" (2008) were fueled by an upbeat, if suspect, urban mythology that's dutifully reprised in No. 3: Dropouts and losers -- dreamers of any hue, socio-economic or ethnic background -- can find themselves, not to mention bond, with their very own footloose "family," when they come home to street dance. This artificially sweet mantra gets recited again and again; it's the glue that's meant to keep the jerry-built show from falling apart.
In giddy '30s musicals, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley's fantastic ensembles glittered on an entirely different plane from Depression-era audiences hungry for hope. Similarly, the "Step Up" trilogy's rainbow coalition of aspiring dancers -- always fronted by photogenic white star and starlet -- is designed to persuade us that on some happy planet street kids armed with nothing but grace can achieve upward mobility. On the dance floor, vying for grand prizes and the crowd's cheers, everybody's equal ... if they can kick the moves.
It's a winning formula. Trouble is, the "Step Up" series doesn't have anywhere near the chops to charm us into swallowing its pretty lie.
Why do all these super-talented Asians, blacks and Hispanics require the beneficent leadership of some doughy white dude (Channing Tatum in "Step Up," Robert Hoffman in "Step Up 2," Rick Malambri here)? Why are all these folks of eye-catching color and idiosyncratic looks so often used as wallpaper, backdrop to the whitebread hunk and his generically glowy girlfriend, who consistently claim center stage and universal kudos, even in hip all-black dance venues? (Mostly the hunks can't even dance; typically, Malambri poses at the forefront of his crew, then slides off to the sidelines when the real hoofing starts.)
Any one of the "wallpaper" kids looks to have a story considerably grabbier than Malambri's moody paterfamilias, who lacks even the smarts to see that the earnest videos he keeps shooting might add up to a dance movie ("Born From a Boombox"). Takes a vapidly pretty dabbler in dance (Sharni Vinson) to bring him up to speed. It's their dull-as-dirt love affair that the movie pretends we should care about, while the colorfully named Kid Darkness, Stix, Bend, The Ticks, Spinz, Hair and Fly are just fodder for the dance floor.
"Step Up 3D"'s one standout exception to the "white men can't dance" (or act) rule is the irresistible Adam G. Sevani. This charming, mop-haired elf debuted in "Step Up 2" as Moose, a geeky scarecrow given to burning up the dance floor. Now supposedly majoring in engineering at NYU, Moose is still a dancin' fool, and the one white person in the film who's genuinely quirky in appearance, style and character. A New York Times reviewer called Sevani "the baddest nerd in movie history." Might be a little over-the-top, but the kid's definitely a comer, in the tradition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
A "Step Up 3D" high point features Moose and his funny-face girlfriend (Alyson Stoner) making up to the musical moves of the Astaire-Rogers classic "I Won't Dance." In one, unbroken shot that pays homage to old-school dance and owes nothing to 3-D, the two turn the whole length of a Lower Manhattan block into their very own stage, gracefully employing cab, garbage can lids, couch and watering hose as props in their joyous pas de deux. As in the best dance performances, their bodies in graceful motion define space, create form where none was. It's painting a moving picture with flesh and blood.
However much the movie's packaged (and sanitized) for white audiences' consumption, the dance jams in "Step Up 3D" should shiver your timbers. Director Chu often shoots from above, as the dueling ensembles rise up and break like tidal waves on each other's sets, their prodigious energy jacking into frenzied kinesis, then slow-motion robotic ballet, mechanical movements seemingly charged by shots of pure electricity. There's tension in the contrast, and a nod to the way orgasmic dance can break humans out of "Metropolis"-style dehumanization.
Using intricate hand-arm choreography, these crazy kids weave abstract, otherworldly forms -- as stylized a sign language as the gestures in kabuki theater or mime by Marcel Marceau. (Do stick around for the end credits: A seated dude "dances" his arms and hands, creating a kaleidoscopic series of images and/or stories ... a creative tour de force!)
So, if you love dance, there are oases in this wasteland. On the other hand, the folks with whom I watched "Step Up 3D" -- mostly teenage white girls -- sat through the jams in rapt silence, then giggled and guffawed at the dreadful dialogue and ludicrous emoting. I'd say they had it right in both cases.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.