[18 April 2014]
The current incarnation of the dance movie may be the most rigidly formulaic of genres. Most of them follow the Footloose pattern, including a rebellious central dancer, often with a checkered past; an unlikely, possibly star-crossed romance with a second dancer; some kind of underground trappings that mostly involve dancing in or outside an abandoned warehouse; opposition to dancing in the form of disapproving parents and/or small-minded members of the community.
Make Your Move has most of these elements, but it deserves some small credit for also getting very specific. Donny (Derek Hough), the movie’s hero, doesn’t mash up hip-hop dancing with ballet or modern dance, per the usual movie dancers; he’s pretty much just a high-octane tap dancer. His love interest Aya (played by the international pop star known as BoA—for “Best of Asia”) is a dancer, too, part of a troupe that specializes in Taiko (Japanese drumming). Together, Donny and Aya inhabit a percussive universe where Stomp is a preeminent cultural influence.
This is actually one of the less strange aspects of Make Your Move, which seems determined to take the most circuitous route through its myriad generic clichés. Writer-director Duane Adler also wrote the similarly imperatively titled Step Up and Make It Happen, as well as Save the Last Dance. Though he’s been writing dance movies for about 15 years, this is his first try at directing one. He may be a better director than a writer. Make Your Move doesn’t have the visual panache of even a lesser Step Up sequel, but it features visually bracing moments, mostly indoors, where Adler doesn’t have to worry about making Toronto pass for New York City. In one shot, Hough and BoA face each other, their faces in silhouette, with curtains half-shielding them from the backlighting of the dance club behind them.
Donny and Aya arrive at this moment after much gear-grinding. He starts off in New Orleans, on parole for his hilarious neo-Dickensian version of a checkered past: he used to employ his tap-dancing skills for evil, distracting tourists while pickpockets made off with their wallets. Frustrated by his inability to make an honest living as a dancer, Donny skips town to visit his foster brother Nick (Wesley Jonathan), who operates an underground dance-performance club in Brooklyn. The movie takes awkward pains to point out that while Donny knows about this dance club, he doesn’t consider seeking employment there until his buddy watches a video on YouTube (most everyone in this movie gets most all information from YouTube).
Donny finds Nick embroiled in a rivalry with his former partner Kaz (Will Yun Lee), who has “stolen” Nick’s idea of, uh, having a dance club, with the backing of sleazy Wall Streeter Michael (Jefferson Brown), who covets Kaz’s sister Aya, of the Taiko troupe, who is on the verge of deportation. Whew. Aya’s troupe also periodically breaks into Nick’s abandoned warehouse to rehearse, part of a subplot in which black, white, and Asian characters intermittently pursue something between a prank war and a race riot.
Amidst all of this turmoil, Donny and Aya manage a meet-cute-dance in Nick’s club. They flirt-dance on top of the bar. Later they date-dance and foreplay-dance, though they draw the line at a sex-dance. Dance duets on film are so expressive and infectious that even cornball routines like those in Make Your Move is expressive, a respite from the dialogue that mixes ridiculous sloganeering (“We are the DIY generation, bro”) and awkward banter (“Now I know why you dance like you have a hard-on”).
“Awkward” doesn’t apply to Donny’s description of Aya’s mild accent “cute”, with maximum condescension. It’s an attitude that belies both Aya and BoA’s accomplishments (BoA is a Korean pop singer who has also recorded in Japan and English, and Aya has a similarly international experience). BoA is an engaging dancer partner for Hough, if not much of an actress, and the movie’s casual treatment of interracial romance is sweet, despite that “cute” start, though with Michael in the picture, it also boils down to two white dudes jockeying for who gets the Asian girlfriend.
That said, the rivalry is over before it begins, as Michael is too loathsome to be an option for Aya. The labor-averse Donny is no obvious prize, repeatedly rejecting Nick’s job offers and indignant that he’s not being given a chance to make it as a dancer. (When he does get that crucial chance, he appears to spend all of about two hours rehearsing alone for a complex make-or-break group dance routine.) Donny’s sense of entitlement, combined with his lack of residence beyond the most temporary digs (his buddy’s club and an abandoned church; say, with a little cleaning up, do you think the latter might be able to sub in for the latter?) makes Donny look more like a bum than the movie probably intends.
Here and elsewhere, Make Your Move gives itself over to dance movie clichés rather than exploring those promising idiosyncratic details it sketches initially. And that makes for a graceless dance movie.