With less than five minutes of screen time but with more humor and sassy attitude than the remaining cast combined, Missy Elliott separates hip-hop royalty from riff raff in the otherwise lackluster “Honey.” This flavorless blender-mix of dance movie cliches draws from the stagnant well of everything from “Flashdance” to “Fame” to “Save the Last Dance,” with a social conscience worn proudly on its flimsy sleeve. Sanitized ghetto tale seems aimed at young urban teens but even they might crave something with a little more edge, spelling a quick spin on the theatrical floor before a faster slide to home entertainment formats.
While it’s not quite the trainwreck that “Glitter” was, this tale of a driven young dancer-choreographer sucked up and then spat out by the music industry to rediscover her purity and purpose is not far behind in terms of its vapidness.
Biggest problem is debuting screenwriters Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson’s clumsily developed script. But right behind that is the lead casting of TV star Jessica Alba of “Dark Angel.” While she can bare her midriff with the best of them and can get by doing generic Britney routines, the actress may be the least electrifying dance sensation since Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.” Closer to Mandy Moore than Mary J. Blige, Alba’s halfhearted stabs at homegirl dialogue would get her laughed right out of the ‘hood.
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Biding her time doing bar work and teaching a hip-hop class at the local Bronx youth center, Honey (Alba) struggles for what seems like minutes for a break as a music video dancer before being spotted by hot director Michael (David Moscow). Far more impressed by her moves than anyone watching the movie is likely to be, he quickly signs Honey up for a string of dance appearances and soon has her choreographing clips, including one for Ginuwine, one of a handful of hip-hop stars — along with uber-diva Elliott and Tweet — cameoing as himself.
Attempting to break from the standard hoochie backup, nice girl Honey sells Michael on a “pied piper of hip-hop” idea involving kids from the neighborhood. Among them are terminally cute tot Raymond (Zachary Isaiah Williams) and his preteen brother Benny (Lil’ Romeo), who’s hovering on the fringes of drug dealing and crime. (This aspect is played largely offscreen, in PG-13 fashion.)
As her dance work becomes more consuming, Honey neglects her gal pal Gina (Joy Bryant) and finds time only distractedly to pursue romance with saintly hunk Chaz (Mekhi Phifer), a basketball-playing barber. When Michael attempts to cash in on the career boost he’s provided with access to Honey’s honeypot, she rejects him, finding herself suddenly off the video shoot and blackballed all over town.
The dissolution of her dream functions as a wakeup call for Honey, who realizes her ambition is less about herself than the change and hope she can bring to the ‘hood. When the decrepit youth center becomes off limits due to a leaky ceiling, Honey channels her energy into staging a benefit to raise money for a new dance studio. At this point, the script throws feasibility to the wind with an improbably easy route to property acquisition, not-for-profit support saviors, a free venue and a fund-raiser show performed by about 10 times the number of dancers ever present at rehearsals.
Former and future music video director Bille Woodruff gets from A to Z in the appointed time but without much flair for dialogue-based scenes or skill with actors and only standard-issue capabilities in shooting the dance segs. Most of those are seen only in frustrating snatches rather than running at length. Despite the energized soundtrack of hip-hop hits, the action moves along with no real rhythm or urgency.
Alba does OK with what’s she’s given but is too scrubbed and whitebread sweet to be a credible part of her character’s environment. Her conflicts, including the urging of her mother (Lonette McKee) to abandon hip-hop and go for social advancement through ballet, are too thinly explored to lend much dramatic weight. Moscow is even more ineffectual as the seductive rogue.
A far better actor than his material here, Phifer supplies some charm and appealing ease in an underexploited part, while Bryant contributes a radically different turn from her “Antwone Fisher” role. The actress displays a natural humor and verve that hint at how much more fun this film could have been had the lead been cast as a spunky black girl instead of going with the more milk-toned, indeterminate ethnicity of Alba, which seems merely a ploy to cross beyond the urban market.