Published Dec 01, 2000In the new MTV-produced feature film, "Save the Last Dance," Julia Stiles learns to dance hip-hop, and her character, Sara, is a former ballet dancer so her moves are sort of a weird, but fascinating amalgam of styles. She maintains that white-girl self-consciousness that favours grace and symmetry over sexy abandon. This is indicative of the tepid, hedge-your-bets nature of this movie, an interracial romance that tries so hard not to ruffle any feathers, it even manages to neuter the urban dance scene. Well, if I were paying the $11.50 to see a movie about Julia Stiles (the thinking man's hottie) learning to, as they say, "bust a move", then I'd damn well want to see her work it like Rosie Perez in the title sequence of Do the Right Thing. Well, no such luck. Stiles may be the best thing about this movie, but in terms of her career she's simply gone from doing ersatz Shakespeare ("10 Things I Hate About You," Almereyda's "Hamlet") to ersatz hip-hop.
The director, Thomas Carter ("Swing Kids"), and his screenwriters, Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards, play it safe to the point of sucking the life out of every character and conflict. My ears perked up initially when Sara, (conspicuously white in an all-black classroom) gets into an argument with her soon-to-be boyfriend, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) about the literary merits of Truman Capote verses Richard Wright or James Baldwin. But Derek's role in the film is to serve as the archetypal Sidney Poitier figure - non-threatening to suburban mall audiences, and admirable to a fault. (He spends most of the movie looking purposefully into Sara's eyes and encouraging - "You can do anything you want if you just believe in yourself!"). He might as well have "positive role model" tattooed on his forehead.
"Save the Last Dance" had great potential to be a fish-out-of-water comedy, but it plays it safe as a romantic drama, throwing in warmed over elements from "Boyz N the Hood" that feel more obligatory than dramatic. The filmmakers seem to be looking for a pat on the back for every "issue" they raise (illegitimate children, gang violence, absent fathers, intolerance of interracial relationships), but they're also quick to deflate or dismiss these issues right after they raise them. What this movie needed was a sense of looseness and fun with the subject matter, and there's one hilarious scene that points in that direction. When Derek walks Sara home for the first time he tries to suss out her feelings for him by asking, "So are you gonna bust a cap in my ass if I come doggin' at your doorstep again?" Her sweetly sincere response bridges the cultural gap and defines it: "No I'd never bust a cap in your ass."