“Save the Last Dance” (IMDb listing) is everything an MTV production should be. It’s carelessly stupid, packed tightly with future “Total Request Live” hits, features young actors who have achieved minimal notoriety, and has the grandiose notion that it’s going to educate the world in the ways of interracial love and urban decay. Going where “Jungle Fever,” “Center Stage,” and “Boyz N the Hood” have long since gone before comes the tardy “Save the Last Dance.”
The antiquated formula for “Last Dance” goes something like this: Poor little rich white Sara (Julia Stiles of “10 Things I Hate About You”) moves in with her absent father in urban Chicago when her mother and her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina die together in a car accident. The new girl in the big bad school, Sara meets Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), an equally brilliant, black kid who is unable to shake his devotion to the gangsta-thug lifestyle despite achieving high grades and future plans for college. Derek and Sara make a connection and soon begin a courtship, much to the chagrin of Derek’s gangsta friends — who are planning some gangsta chaos that includes him — and Sara’s black friends who have a problem with their interracial dating. Through mutual respect and some hot lovin’, Derek inspires Sara to take up ballet again. Sara in return, teaches Derek there is more to life than crime. We also learn that love knows no bounds, the soundtrack is available at record stores everywhere, and “that outfit isn’t ‘cool,’ it’s ‘slammin’.”
If “Save the Last Dance” didn’t take itself so seriously, I don’t believe it would’ve been so bad. This is afterschool special material, with director Thomas Carter taking every cliche and approaching it as if it was Shakespeare. This is the same Thomas Carter who took action film cliches and spun them into something fresh and exciting in his gritty, wrongly accused Eddie Murphy vehicle “Metro.” It took me a good 30 minutes before I realized that Carter wasn’t going to make magic twice with “Last Dance.”
“Save the Last Dance” is paint-by-numbers filmmaking without any depth. While the marketing materials suggest that it’s a movie about dance, don’t be fooled. “Last Dance” is not a dance film. Using the dance angle as a red herring to suck in gullible teen audiences, “Last Dance” is really trying to address urban issues such as single motherhood and criminal tendencies. Though commendable, “Last Dance” is clumsy with these subjects, choosing to instead handle them melodramatically instead of truthfully. I’m no Hip-Hop connoisseur, but I do know that street slang sounds awful when scripted (“Yo B, you still my dawg, aight?”), and coming from the upper-class MTV execs who produced the film, “Last Dance” seems even more fraudulent when it comes to views toward the urban plight of African-Americans. The film chooses to use real life horrors to suit its selfish pedestrian narrative, never once bothering to follow through with the realities it showcases. And yes, the film does climax in a slow-motion drive-by shooting.
As the two stars of the picture, Stiles and Thomas aren’t asked to do much more than humiliate themselves with Duane Adler and Cheryl Edward’s kiddie cocktail script. Stiles, with her Lil’ Orphan Annie eyes and expressionless face, gives nothing to the role of Sara besides the requisite tears when the script calls for a little more from her. Thomas, on the other hand, is a pulsating presence stuck in a dull role. Thomas manages to create a Derek that is firmly intelligent, yet the character never rises to the level of this intellect that Thomas projects. This leaves some of the more preposterous decisions that Derek makes puzzling.
While the appeal of dance to teens is not a topic I will debate, I hope that kids are able to see how calculated and transparent this rubbish really is. As entertainment, it’s muddled and overtly simplified. As an educational tool, “Save the Last Dance” is old news.