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Dustin Putman

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Dance Flick  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Damien Dante Wayans.
Cast: Shoshana Bush, Damon Wayans Jr., Essence Atkins, Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, David Alan Grier, Amy Sedaris, Brennan Hillard, Chelsea Makela, George Gore II, Christina Murphy, Affion Crockett, Ross Thomas, Yves Lola St. Vil, Sufe Bradshaw, Lochlyn Munro, Kim Wayans, Lauren Bowles, Chris Elliott, Ellia English, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Tichina Arnold, Heather McDonald, Louisa Abernathy.
2009 – 83 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content throughout, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 21, 2009.

In recent years, the spoof genre has fallen on hard, hard times. The releases of 2000's raucously entertaining "Scary Movie" and 2001's scattershot but still amusing "Scary Movie 2" seem like eons ago now that the world has since been punished with one ultra-lame, ultra-lazy, ultra-unfunny knockoff after the next. The nadirs, easily, have been filmmaking miscreants Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, the hack duo behind three atrocities known as 2007's "Epic Movie," 2008's "Meet the Spartans," and 2008's "Disaster Movie." Seltzer and Friedberg have proven time and again that they barely have the skills to point the camera in the right direction, let alone create anything clever or satirical. Instead of placing a crooked absurdist spin on their material, they simply reference past movies and expect the humor to derive solely from the fact that they are reenacting the same scene with different actors. Words cannot accurately describe how depressing cinema can get until one has put themselves through the pain and misery of these celluloid wastes.

With Seltzer's and Friedberg's oeuvre, not to mention other duds like 2006's "Scary Movie 4," 2008's "An American Carol," and 2008's "Superhero Movie," stinking up the joint, "Dance Flick" has arrived not a moment too soon. That is not to say that this latest effort, directed by Damien Dante Wayans (nephew of Keenen, Damon and Shawn), is a huge success, but it at least understands what being in the spoof genre entails. Co-written by all of the above and Craig Wayans, the gags come so quickly and frequently—not only in the foreground, but in the background of shots—that the viewer cannot possibly catch everything on first viewing. Whether a person cares enough to see "Dance Flick" a second time is another story. Aficionados of slapstick will recognize and appreciate the tribute paid to the sorts of puns and one-liners found in the best-of-the-best parodies, 1980's "Airplane!" and 1988's "The Naked Gun," but whereas those films also told a cohesive story and retained a certain sweetness, this one is spottier in design and prevalent in the worst taste imaginable. Even with a PG-13 rating (perhaps the most graphic PG-13-rated movie in existence), "Dance Flick" knows no boundaries in its purposefully stereotypical portrayal of race, ethnicity, sexual preference, body type, mental and physical handicaps, and so on. There isn't a character (or audience member) safe from ridicule.

When her funereal florist mother (her company is called "Flowers to Die For") is killed in a freak accident involving Halle Berry, a gasoline truck and multiple hit-and-run drivers, teenager Megan (Shoshana Bush) moves cross-country to live with her deadbeat father (Chris Elliott) in a dilapidated downtown squat. An aspiring dancer, Megan would seem to be right at home at Musical High School. She quickly befriends the sassy Charity (Essence Atkins) and, after a trip to Club Violence, meets and begins dating Charity's brother, Thomas (Damon Wayans Jr.). However, the controversy of their interracial romance in a predominately black school—not to mention Megan's nagging guilt over her mom's death and Thomas' unwanted involvement in a gang of yard-stompin', pistol-packin' thugs—threatens to tear them apart as the annual dance competition draws near.

"Dance Flick" opens unpromisingly, with an urban dance-off involving urination and a character who sticks his head up his rectum. This was going to be a long 83 minutes. Soon after, though, the film finds its footing thanks to inspired writing and a ravenously game ensemble of actors. After Megan tells a fellow chatty train passenger (Ellia English) the rambling, sordid story of her mother's awful demise (seen in flashbacks), the fed-up woman angrily retorts, "Girl, I didn't ask you for all that!" Once in her new school, Megan is informed by the principal, Ms. Dontwannabebothered (Kim Wayans), that her office hours last for three minutes every leap year before sneaking away as Megan tries to confide in her. The succinctly-named dance teacher, Ms. Cameltoé (Amy Sedaris), is a punishing, overly critical type who moves down her line of students tossing insults at every one of them. When she spits out to one weak-willed girl to kill herself, she does just that by hurling herself out the window. Charity prides herself on being a hands-on single mother by devouring a parenting guide written by Britney Spears, taking her infant son to school and hanging him in her locker during classes, and accompanying the child to the doctor when he fails to wear a condom and gets crabs. And when Thomas takes Megan on a date, she is terrorized by being forced to sit through the Joffrey Ballet's production of "Your Momma Died in a Car Crash." All of this, and much more, is stupendously funny in the moment, and predictably surrounded by references to everything from "Flashdance" to "Save the Last Dance" to "Step Up" to "Roll Bounce." Ironically, it is the dance sequences that are the least effective, seemingly arising out of obligation rather than because they are truly necessary.

Shoshana Bush (2009's "Fired Up!") is a new talent who, like Anna Faris in "Scary Movie," could potentially go on to a solid career after this. As heroine Megan, she shows a savvy sense of comic timing and understands that this kind of humor is always better when delivered in deadpan. As best friend Charity, who hangs out with Keloid (Sufe Bradshaw) and Uglisha (Yves Lola St. Vil) so that they can make her look more attractive in comparison, Essence Atkins (2003's "Deliver Us from Eva") is a scene-stealing spitfire reminiscent of Regina Hall's Brenda in "Scary Movie." Charity's extreme fashion makeover of Megan in preparation for going to Club Violence is one of the comic highlights.

As Ms. Cameltoé, the invaluable Amy Sedaris (2008's "Snow Angels") delights in her name-says-it-all role, and even gets a chance to beatbox with musical backup from, let's just say, a part of the anatomy. Other performers with even more fleeting screen time are just as memorable, particularly Kim Wayans' (2002's "Juwanna Mann") priceless turn as school principal Ms. Dontwannabebothered; Tichina Arnold (2008's "Drillbit Taylor") as blind student Ray's passive-aggressive mamma; and the warm, wonderful Ellia English (2007's "Good Luck Chuck") as the train passenger who gets more than she bargained for from listening to Megan's woes. Less welcome is David Alan Grier (2006's "Little Man"), who doesn't get one laugh as the oversized, "Dreamgirls"-singing Sugar Bear. His extraneous role could have been cut without losing anything of note.

How often do the jokes in "Dance Flick" work? About forty percent of the time, and that's not a bad average considering there are new ones popping up every minute. Granted, there are also many that fall flat, and others that don't even make it off the ground running. The story is barely there, as well, more an excuse to just clothesline scenes upon. One also has to question what constitutes racism, sexism, and homophobia in film, and what is just all in good fun. The line between harmless and mean-spirited is a narrow one that, even with a black director at the helm, threatens at any second to come crashing down. Ultimately, the film remains enjoyable when it works because it's just too over-the-top to take seriously. So is "Dance Flick" worth wholeheartedly recommending? Not for everyone, or for many. But there is an exuberance in the direction by Damien Dante Wayans, and a certain not-easily-offended audience who will eat it up, junk food or not. You know who you are.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman