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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

Naturally sweet, yet sticky 'Honey' may appeal to hip-hop fans

• Jessica Alba's strong, sexy style kills — in a good way

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

HONEY (PG-13) Two-and-a-Half Stars (Fair-to-Good)

Jessica Alba plays a young woman who loves hip-hop dance and teaches at a rundown community center in the Bronx. She believes dance is a way to keep the kids off the drug-and gangsta-infested streets. And before the film is over, she says the immortal words: "Let's put on a show." Also stars Mekhi Phifer, Lil' Romeo. Bille Woodruff directs. Universal, 95 minutes.

Every generation needs a movie in which an enthusiastic young person says, "Let's put on a show." The latest to wear the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney mantle is Jessica Alba, who plays the title character in "Honey."

Honey Daniels loves hip-hop dance and teaches teens and pre-teens at a rundown community center in the Bronx. She believes dance is a way to keep the kids off the drug- and gangster-infested streets. And before the film is over, she's organizing them to dance at a benefit to save the community center.

At night, Honey tends bar in a local dance club and then tears up the dance floor when she's off the clock. (You guessed it: Every generation also needs its own "Saturday Night Fever.") Honey also has personal ambitions, which take her into Manhattan on almost a daily basis to audition for dance roles in rap videos.

(Yes, "Flashdance" also comes to mind.) So the influences are overly obvious and the script takes a simplistic, Hallmark Card approach to urban life. Nonetheless, "Honey" still modestly entertains with the elements that boosted its famous predecessors — lots of energetic dancing, eye candy and a wealth of urban music that'll presumably appeal to fans of the genre. The R&B and rap performers include Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, 3rd Storee, Jadakiss and Tweet.

The storyline follows the traditional path of many backstage musicals. Honey wants desperately to be a star. But when she gets her chance as the "discovery" of a hot video director (David Moscow), she soon find that it comes with a price. The director tries to bed her. She refuses and heads back to the neighborhood to regain her confidence and find her own way. That's when she discovers a more decent fellow (an under-used Mekhi Phifer) who operates the local barbershop.

Honey also befriends two youngsters from a troubled home (Lil' Romeo and Zachary Isaiah Williams) and discovers the value of dance as community salvation. That leads to the immortal words, "Let's put on a show."

Bille Woodruff's direction is straightforward and the dance numbers are a bit stagey but firmly in the street hip-hop tradition. The attractive Alba (of TV's "Dark Angel") dances up a storm, but seems a bit lightweight in the more dramatic confrontations.

All told, Honey is naturally sweet, but a little sticky. Seems appropriate, doesn't it?

Rated PG-13, with profanity, innuendo, drugs.

• • •

Jessica Alba's strong, sexy style kills — in a good way

I'm killing a few minutes between a screening and a luncheon interview by perusing the magazine shelves at Tower Records when the cover of Maxim doesn't so much catch my eye as pull it out of its socket, as in an old Krazy Kat cartoon. There, in the briefest of bikini bottoms, is my lunch partner, making me feel at once like an old lech and a young buck. This, I think, may be the two extremes of the cover girl's fan base.

"Yeah, well, I have my top on, I don't have my arms crossed across my chest," says an anything-but-apologetic Jessica Alba, 22, star of the hip-hop dance musical "Honey," which opens today. She appears not the least embarrassed that I have seen her in at least half her underwear.

"The photographers try to push you as far as you will go, but I'm not intimidated. It's part of the job. You set perimeters, and you do what makes you comfortable. I'm comfortable looking sexy. I don't push it with poses, although I like the ironic part of it. That's what makes it fun."

It is at that moment that Alba, digging into her salad, mentions Brigitte Bardot and "Et Dieu ... crea la femme," the French title of a movie a few million excited baby-boom boys knew as "And God Created Woman."

"I love that movie so much," says Alba. "She's 18, she's unbelievably sexy and gorgeous, she's so aware of the effect she has on men. She's so, so cool. She kills."

Alba uses that word — kills — a lot, whether she's talking about her favorite music ("Have you heard Joss Stone? She's just 16, and that voice ... she kills.") or her favorite actors ("I want to see anything Cate Blanchett does ... she kills.")

She also uses it in referring to the choreographer she worked with to learn the steps she performs in "Honey." In the film, she plays a dance teacher from Harlem whose dream of becoming a choreographer for hip-hop videos comes true.

"She tried to kill me," says Alba. "She was just doing her job, but if she would have had her way, I would have been rehearsing the moves 20 hours a day. Finally, I had to say 'Look, I'm beat, I'm sore and I have to be on the set in a few hours and know my lines. Give me a break.' "

I make a silent vow to find the torturer of this smart, ambitious and stunningly attractive young woman and issue her a stern warning, but Alba can probably handle herself.

After all, she did take on all comers as the genetically enhanced fighting machine in Fox TV's short-lived but acclaimed sci-fi series "Dark Angel," whose first season has probably been seen by more people on DVD than tuned in for free three years ago.

By that time Alba, who was born in Pomona, Calif., but raised in Biloxi, Miss., where her father served in the Air Force to support her and her teenage mother, had been acting professionally for seven years.

She was one of hundreds of young women James Cameron auditioned for the dark and stylish "Dark Angel," his post-"Titanic" TV project, and was happily surprised when she won the part of Max, a bike messenger in a post-apocalyptic Seattle on the run from a government that enhanced her with super-strength and intelligence for her role in a top-secret assault squad.

"To me, she's a true discovery," said Cameron at the time. "Whoever we picked to play Max had to not only have the confidence and stamina of an action hero, she had to convince the viewers she was a real, vulnerable human being."

"The first season kills," says Alba. "The second season, Fox wanted to juice the ratings, so they fired the head writer and made it more fantastic, with monsters and all that other stuff. Even people who live and breathe sci-fi don't want to see that. It's all about human emotion in the end."

In the wake of "Dark Angel," Alba says, she was offered "every female butt-kicking role out there. I just wasn't interested."

What did interest her was doing a musical that could turn kids on to dancing the way "Flashdance" and "Dirty Dancing" had for her. But when Universal first sent her the script for "Honey," she wasn't impressed.

"It was so clichéd, the dialogue was, like, all Ebonics. They had my character riding a motorcycle and beating people up. I was like, 'Uh, I don't think so.' "

Alba was persuaded to hang in, and changes were made that she said "gave it the heart of those movies I loved so much." Alba also thought Mekhi Phifer, who appeared in "8 Mile" and is in the cast of "E.R.," would be perfect for the role of the neighborhood barber whom Honey vastly prefers to the Cristal-ordering video producer who gives her her big break.

"They said, 'Mekhi will never do it, he's past that now,' and I argued that he had never played a regular guy role like this one, and if they could just get him in, I could talk him into reading it. He did and said he liked it, and I was like" — deep breath — "OK, now I've got to make sure we do it right."

For Alba, that meant using a dance double as little as possible; though she diplomatically avoids naming names, she says other recent dance-themed movies make her crazy.

"It's so obviously not the star doing the dancing. I hate it when they edit in the footwork, because it's so obvious."

Thus, the drill instructor teacher who drove her crazy too — "but it was worth it," Alba says.

Next, she says, is a loose remake of author Peter Benchley's "The Deep," titled "Into the Blue," in which she will get to use her scuba skills.

Alba says that she had few qualms about doing a remake because "about all anybody ever remembers about the original was Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt.

"Don't worry, I've got that in my contract. Wet suit only. No clingy tee."

— Terry Lawson, Knight Ridder News Service