Snort a few lines of Fame, screen Save the Last Dance a couple of times, and channel what you've learned through the bad-ass pose of a second-rate Eminem and you get Step Up, a dance romance with the originality of a paint-by-numbers set. First-time director Anne "Mama" Fletcher, the choreographer who gave Catwoman her slink and The 40 Year Old Virgin his stumbles, shows a gift for blending ballet and hip-hop in her all-too-infrequent production numbers. But if the old Brooklyn disco king Tony Manero were to get a look at the reheated plot of cowriters Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg, he might grab a big hammer down from the hardware store wall and go Italian-crazy on these shameless plagiarists.
Herewith, the familiar baby steps: In the seedy reaches of Baltimore, a disaffected white foster child named Tyler Gage (She's the Man's buff Channing Tatum) stews in his juices, steals cars and shoots playground hoops with streetwise black friends like Mac (hulking Damaine Radcliff). Predictably, Tyler wears his baseball cap backwards and confronts his dead-end hopelessness with a sneer and a shrug. But he has also picked up a slew of trans-racial leaps, tumbles and spins on the way to high school, and that, of course, is the one thing that sets him free busting moves. For our glowering, semi-soulful Ty, the Bee Gees may be ancient history (if he knows them at all), but the fever burns deep inside him, too. What dumb luck, then, to get caught vandalizing a stage set at the elite-albeit-funky Maryland School of the Arts. Ordered by the judge to take up mop and bucket for 200 hours of community service at the school, our boy is about to discover his self-esteem and get redeemed by aesthetics. As if we didn't already know that art heals all wounds.
The dancing's inventive, but not especially dirty. Relieved of his janitorial duties when an ambitious rich girl (dancer/actress Jenna Dewan) needs a new partner for her number in the upcoming senior showcase, Tyler becomes the unfettered improviser of the new duo. The lithe, pretty girl, whose name is Nora, provides the classicism. Says he of her style: "This whole thing is stiff. It's boring." Replies she: Go get yourself a pair of tights, and then we'll see what we can do about that. From the beginning, the artistic cross-pollination and the budding love affair are destined to work out. Add the raw to the refined, combine unschooled passion with high purpose, and, well, you know. Bingo. Nora would rather jump off a bridge than obey her clueless mom and traipse off to a four-year sentence at Cornell or Brown. So the showcase, which doubles as an audition in front of dance-company scouts, means everything to her.
Meanwhile, Tatum's relentless African-American impersonation soon wears out its welcome, and the screenwriters find themselves hard-pressed to advance the narrative. Suffice it to say that a predictable falling-out between hero and heroine, a secondary romance involving two other students (R&B star Mario and pianist-actress Drew Sidora) and a drive-by shooting we've seen coming from the start don't exactly stir the blood. Director Fletcher's strength is obviously her choreography, but the rehearsal scenes are repetitious, and the exciting grand finale leaves you hungering for more even if the clumsy way it's filmed falls a little short of Bob Fosse or Stanley Donen. Inspiring dancers to move beautifully is one thing; getting their hard work to look right on the screen, rather than a stage, is another. Cinematographer Michael Seresin employs some dramatic lighting effects, but the camera is often in the wrong place, and the cutting looks sloppy. Fred and Ginger would cringe.
On the bright side, there's an appealing sweetness in this story of dreams strived for and attained. Backstage drama can be a hard, cynical form, but Fletcher and company mean to inspire their audience young and dreamy itself, one suspects with a familiar vision of success. "For me," the self-defeating Tyler declares early on, "it's better not to want anything." Before the last syllable is even out of his mouth, you can practically hear the chorus in the wings, urging him on in full voice to a better life.