[18 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Believe it or not, there was a time when the name Wayans didn’t instantly incur the wrath of comedy fans everywhere. From I’m Gonna Get You Sucka to In Living Color, Keenan Ivory and his rotating band of relatives produced biting send-ups and celebrated spoofs, all with an unusual (for the time) African American slant. To call them trailblazers would do their innovations a disservice. At a time when TV and the mainstream media saw all black people as either Huxtables or hoodlums, the Wayans crew walked the fine line between stereotype and satire brilliantly.
Then…something happened. Like those stories from our youth about falling in with the wrong crowd, the various members of Wayans nation saw commercial success blind their abilities. Where once they were funny, they flopped. Where once they delivered high brow burlesque that functioned as savage social commentary, they spewed cinematic scat like Scary Movie, White Chicks, and that most miserable of motion picture experiences, Little Man. In fact, when it was announced that the formerly talented team was taking up the movie mantle of films like Step Up and Save the Last Dance, audiences and critics groaned in disbelief. Apparently, they thought they knew what was coming next.
Luckily, the next generation of Wayans seems ready to return the family to greatness - or at the very least, likeability. Their first attempt at resetting the clan’s commercial fortunes is Dance Flick, and while not a perfect comedy by any stretch of the imagination, what we do have here is something fresh, inventive, exciting, and most importantly, fun. Instead of throwing every tired pop culture riff at the screen, desperate to see what sticks, the latest members of the Mad Magazine influenced crew use the classic ZAZ formula for funny business and wind up delivering something every bit as good as Airplane! or the Naked Gun films.
After her mother’s untimely death, Juilliard wannabe Megan travels to the big city to live with her deadbeat dad. There, she meets up with several standout members of the Musical High School class, including 21 year old unwed mother Charity, her talented if slightly stuck up street thug brother, Thomas Uncles, his best friend A-Con, prissy white chick Nora, and incredibly flamboyant (and very closeted) Jack. While she dreams of a life as a dancer, the tough streets of her new urban environment constantly remind her of the struggle ahead. All that changes, of course, when overweight mobster Sugar Bear demand money from Thomas and A-Con. Naturally, their only chance of getting it is via a big time ghetto wide dance off - with Megan and the rest of Musical High as the “crew”.
While it may sound like an excuse, it is important to note that comedy, like horror and musical taste, remains a very subjective standard. Just because you think something is funny, scary, or the second coming of The Beatles doesn’t mean a group consensus will support you position. We all have private favorites and fixations, pleasures that may be unexplainable but make you feel happy - and slightly guilty - for enjoying them so. That’s exactly what Dance Flick is, especially for a film critic who’s seen more than his fair share or suburban girl meets street tough scenarios. With its combination of cleverness and crudity, obvious gags and hilarious insider smackdowns, the movie hits more targets than it misses. Even better, the cast seems really invested in the story and the situations, unlike that god-awful junk that arrives under the various “Move” monikers - Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie - every six months or so.
There truly is an art to mixing narrative with nuttiness, avoiding the slapdash senselessness of someone like Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. Sure, when Sugar Bear breaks into a Dreamgirls parody of the showstopper “And I Am Telling You…”, we recognize the obvious aside. But the other main song in the film (a sexually confused take on the original high school musical Fame) flows directly from the need to mock the omnipresent House of Mouse franchise. But it’s the dancing, including the numerous slapstick and physical comedy incorporated therein, that is truly wonderful, especially the moves of the incredibly talented Affion Crockett, Shoshana Bush, and Damon Wayans, Jr. A sense or reality is important to making a movie like this work and their believability as street savvy hoofers puts Dance Flick over the top.
Even better, the toilet humor and gross out stunts are kept to a minimum. Only Amy Sedaris pushes the boundaries of propriety with her leotard-challenged instructor, Ms. Cameltoé (gee, wonder what her issue is???), while other sexual or scandalous content is modulated to fit the teenage circumstances involved. Even the deleted scenes - present on the new DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film - don’t oversell the bile (for a wonderful drunken David Hassellhoff take-off) and other bad taste tricks to keep the humor happening. Still, even with the so called “Un-rated and Outrageous” edition of the film hitting home video, then new stuff is not that naughty. Instead, it’s the standard MPAA mandated labeling that occurs whenever a theatrical release is ‘embellished’ with material that did not make the final version that played in theaters.
And yet it’s hard not to argue with people who find this kind of comedy silly or stupid. Even in a wonderfully crisp, 1080p, 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray image and beefed up DTS, Master Audio 5.1 mix, there are always going to be viewers who cringe at this kind of kneejerk, football to the groin level of wit. In fact, format can’t make up for perceived personal shortcomings, which make grading something like Dance Flick a critical crap shoot. No matter the final judgment, someone is bound to take you for task. However, most written movie opinions also have an element of objectivity to them, and within the current crop of attempted take-offs, Dance Flick is definitely one of the best. While not quite damning with faint praise, one thing’s for sure - the new generation of Wayans have the comedy chops to resurrect their family’s lagging fortunes.