Dance This Mess Around

What a bad feeling -- and taste -- Honey leaves behind

Honeyis one of those movies you will see, swear you've seen before in several other guises and incarnations, then immediately forget you ever saw to begin with. Its story, about a would-be dancer trying to plot her escape from mean streets (or mean movie sets and back lots), has been told countless times, usually in films starring John Travolta or Jennifer Beals ... or Kevin Bacon, if one feels compelled to add Footlooseto the estimable genre of movies about people who have just gotta dance! The entire enterprise feels decidedly retro; were it not for the bumpin' soundtrack assembled on the hip-hop factory line, you might mistake this for something made for the cut-out bins of 1978 or 1983 or 1991. Why it exists at all is a mystery for the ages. Certainly, it is not because there was an audience clamoring for a Jessica Alba star vehicle; nobody watched her on Dark Angel for two years, and that was free.

Alba is the latest in a long line of long legs to mistake dancing lessons for acting lessons -- though, to be fair, she did once study with David Mamet and William H. Macy. She works her abs off as Honey, a bartender by night and record-store clerk by day who has the mighty aspiration of working in the music-video biz as a choreographer. And if you can root for that in your movie protagonist, well, you'll pretty much cheer for anything. If only Missy Elliott -- who has charisma to burn and smoke -- had been cast in the lead. She's teased in the credits but appears far too late in the film to redeem it.

Director Bille Woodruff, maker of videos for, among others, Britney Spears and Outkast, finds big drama in Honey's dancer's block. When not picking up moves from asphalt ballers, she's teaching steps to the children at the local rec center, run by her mother (Lonette McKee, once a Spike Lee regular, now relegated to furrowing brows). Her multiculti class, decked out in designer threads, looks like an American Idolcasting call; you keep expecting a Broadway producer to stumble in and sign them up for a touring production of Rent.

Among the local toughs Honey convinces to join her class is Benny (Lil' Romeo), whom she meets one night while he's bustin' break-dance moves in an alley, which lends a decidedly Electric Boogaloovibe to the proceedings. Benny at first thinks Honey is a fake and fraud; she thinks he's afraid of not looking tough in front of his little brother and the drug dealer for whom he works on the side. It's Benny who inspires Honey to buy a dilapidated warehouse and turn it into a dance studio for the neighborhood. She can't afford the building until she puts on a show at an abandoned church. Andy Hardy just called and he wants his movie back.

Honeywill satisfy those who found Flashdancetoo hard to follow. It plays like a remake, down to its protagonist's involvement with a moneyed boss -- though in this case the boss in question, video director Michael Ellis (David Moscow, not so cute as when he was little Tom Hanks in Big), goes from prince to prick for no reason other than to advance a stalled plot. Honey then adds a second love interest: Mekhi Phifer's barbershop owner Chaz, who eschewed the thug life for the chance to cut heads in the old neighborhood.

If Flashdanceheralded the dawn of cinema as music video montage, Honeyboils down the formula to its most base elements: It possesses the story arc of an afternoon spent watching BET or MTV2 and winds up as little more than an assemblage of clips for, among others, Jadakiss and Ginuwine and other hip-hop chart-toppers connected, as loosely as a pair of Triple 5 Soul baggy jeans, by its tattered tale. Even the scenes set outside the soundstages look framed and lit and soundtracked to resemble a music video, to the point that for a good half-hour you can't even tell what's going on and what is being said over the din of boomboomboom coming out of a nightclub's P.A. system. (Not that it matters much; the dialogue could be recorded in Esperanto and still the audience could keep up.) It's a wonder Honeywasn't funded by Sony and Interscope and AOL Time Warner, among the labels represented here by artists whose videos Honey is hired to choreograph. Certainly it exists solely to sell a soundtrack; the movie, like most made for teens, is well beside the point.

 
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