Directed By: David Petrarca
Screenplay By: Kwame Nyanning
Based upon characters created by Duane Adler
Produced By: Eric Hetzel
Cast: Izabella Miko, Columbus Short, Jacqueline Bisset, Aubrey Dollar, Ian Brennan, Maria Brooks
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 95 minutes
Review Date: December 31, 2010
With Sequelitis, we strive to review all those odd, direct-to-video sequels of 20-year-old films. You know the ones: Low budget, unrecognizable cast, only tangentially related to the film it claims to follow? Do they hold a candle to the original, or do they reek of a distributor money-making ploy?
The first Save the Last Dance may not have been a masterpiece, but it did two things exceptionally well. It took the tropes of a stale, cliché-ridden genre and turned it into a thoughtful, character-driven drama. It also allowed the characters to learn from each other, rather than having one character serve as the driving force for change. When Derek abandons his gangsta thug friends to arrive at Sara’s Juilliard audition at just the right moment, audiences could breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed like these two crazy kids were going to make it, and what’s more — we wanted them to make it.
Save the Last Dance 2 starts off on the absolute wrong foot. In an opening sequence that combines a weird documentary-style interview with our new Sara (Izabella Miko) with even weirder (and strangely inept) chromakey to show Sara dancing over colorful yet silly imagery matching whatever topic she’s discussing in the interview, she announces that she and Derek split up almost immediately after the events of the last film, because of the long-distance relationship problems (and because she needs to meet a new love interest at Juilliard).
Though made five years after the first film, the sequel picks up with Sara arriving at Juilliard for a heaping helping of Fame-like good times and hard work. She meets her wacky roommate, a Texan acting student named Zoe (Aubrey Dollar), who serves no other purpose than comic relief (on the plus side, Dollar actually is pretty funny). She meets her mentor, Katrina (Maria Brooks), a seeming ice princess who actually does look out for Sara’s best interests — until their patrician ballet teacher (Jacqueline Bisset) starts to take Sara more seriously than Katrina.
During a weird scene, new love interest Miles (Columbus Short) predicts Sara is a trombonist and is not pleased when she tells him she dances. This artificial conflict is extended when Sara learns Miles has taken over her “Introduction to Hip-Hop Theory” class. While not an official instructor, he was hand-picked to teach the class during the absence of the usual professor. If you’re wondering why this revelation angers Sara, you’re not alone. But, hey, romantic movies need conflict, so let’s roll with it, shall we?
Miles collects sounds like John Travolta in Blow Out in the pursuit of what the movie wants us to believe are riveting aural collages, when in reality they merely sound like generic hip-hop. He talks a lot about music theory and music history, and although it impresses Sara, it comes off like pretentious posturing in light of the Tesh-esque music he creates. At any rate, when Miles sees Sara bust her fresh moves at a local club, he becomes entranced. He spends the bulk of the movie trying to convince her to blow off her studies to work with him on goofy performance-art installations, dancing to his undanceable (Sara’s word) music. Sara’s torn between the man she’s falling in love with and the opportunity to dance the lead in Giselle. If you can’t predict the breakup and get-back-together, you’ve never seen a teen dance film.
I know part of the problem stems from my enjoyment of the original film, but wouldn’t anyone seeking out Save the Last Dance 2 feel the same way? The film’s central conflict — Sara having to choose between a boyfriend and the education she’s worked her whole life to get — could have worked just as easily with Derek in tow, moving with Sara to New York and struggling to do something with his life while he watches the woman he loves get a bunch of opportunities he’d love to have. Our advance knowledge of the way the relationship developed in the first film could only enhance the conflicts in the second. Although played well by Short, the Miles character just doesn’t have the same resonance.
Keep in mind that I gave favorable reviews to both Breakin’ movies. I can appreciate a silly, energetic dance film when I see one and embrace incomprehensible plotting, forced conflict, and all manner of other bad drama if the film keeps a light tone and has good dance sequences. Save the Last Dance 2 has it half-right — veteran TV director David Petrarca captures the right tone, but the dance sequences feature distractingly poor choreography that Petrarca tries to mask with rapid-fire, Michael Bay-style editing. It’s hard to tell the choreography’s no good if you can’t tell what the hell is going on, but that doesn’t make the dancing any more engaging to look at. I could easily forgive the film’s myriad problems if not for this unforgivable sin, a dance film with no dancing worth watching.
Though Miko dances well (bad choreography or not), her acting chops leave a bit to be desired, especially following Julia Stiles. In a situation where nobody in the film can act (as in the aforementioned Breakin’ films), this might be easier to overlook. However, alongside the excellent Short, Bisset, and Brooks, and the funny presence of Dollar and Ian Brennan (as Miles’s DJ friend), Miko doesn’t hold her own anywhere but on the dance floor. Sadly, she doesn’t even look like she’s enjoying herself, focusing too intently on the dancing instead of just having a good time. I don’t disagree with Gene Kelly’s belief that seeing a dancer work his or her ass off will impress the audience more than gliding effortlessly across a ballroom, but Miko’s consternation doesn’t match the genial tone of the film — and even Kelly and the dancers he directed imbued a playful sense of fun on the hard work.
I had some hope that maybe Save the Last Dance 2 would have some of the same nice, character-driven storytelling of the first film. The opening seconds dashed that hope but replaced it with a new hope — that it’d be an absurd heir apparent to the Breakin’ films. It has some goofy moments and fun performances, but I can’t consider it anything but a disappointment.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.