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MOVIE REVIEW

Simple and sweet `Honey' lacks substance

As the title character in the new reach-for-the-stars drama, "Honey," Jessica Alba goes from Jennifer Beals to Jennifer Lopez in 90 minutes flat. The movie is the story of Honey Daniels and her rise to the top of the music-video dance world. Reports that this will be the "Glitter" of hip-hop dance are devastatingly false. The egomaniacal badness of Mariah Carey's turkey still entertains, while "Honey" stagnates as a good-natured exercise in nervelessness. Neither hot nor square, it's as simple and earnest as any after-school special and as cameo-laden as any rap video.

 

Honey serves drinks at the local club, toils at the record store, and teaches hip-hop at the community center. Before long, she's shaking her tail in the videos that the dealers, thugs, kids, barbers, and city budget-cutters catch on TV. A slimy young director named Mike Ellis (David Moscow) sees Honey's moves on a videotape his scouts have made and knows he wants her -- in every lascivious way a director can want a background dancer. (He seems to be a joke on Dave Meyers, who's made a number of brilliant clips for Missy Elliott.)

Honey knows better. "Every guy's a director when he wants some booty," she tells her outspoken best friend, Gina (Joy Bryant). But her skepticism melts away, and soon she's upstaging the choreographer on the set of the new Jadakiss video. Not much later she's working it for Tweet, Ginuwine, and Missy Elliott. Initially, I was afraid we wouldn't discover where Honey gets the inspiration for her twitches, undulations, and epileptic jolts, but then we get a glimpse in what is the film's saddest scene.

Mike tells Honey that there's something missing from her latest moves. (He's been punching away on his two-way pager, so how he'd know is a mystery, but never mind.) She walks up to a fence and sees some brothers playing ball and some girls jumping double Dutch. And eureka! -- her new routine. Frankly, it's nothing special, just the rubbery stuff that Sean "P. Diddy" Combs does in others people's videos.

It's hard to say whether Alba's any good here because the movie is eager to do all her acting for her. In that eureka moment, the movie cuts to the basketball court, pans over to the dudes' hands and feet, then to the rope jumpers, and then to Alba's wide eyes. In one scene after the next, she's revealed to be an effective reactress.

When Honey refuses Mike's overtures, she's fired, and her nemesis Katrina takes over. The rest of her time is spent trying to clean up the Bronx -- visiting a kid in juvie, confronting the drug dealers, and having a big "dance benefit" to save her mother's community center. The movie I wanted to see would have teased out some kind of dance-off between Honey and the fearsome Katrina, who's played by Laurie Ann Gibson, the movie's actual choreographer. But written by Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson, the movie's too upstanding for interchoreographer skirmishes. In lieu of battles, Honey gets a boyfriend (Mekhi Phifer).

The movie is too impatient to get us involved. The director Bille Woodruff, a music-video man himself, pitches every scene with the same false modesty. You don't believe that anyone has anything to lose, so there's no real risk or surprise in Honey's pursuit of her dream. (It comes true with impossible ease, anyway.)

Lonette McKee, meanwhile, plays Honey's mom. And McKee's a woman who should know from auspicious kids. The legacy of her role as the bad, more talented singing sister in "Sparkle" has been a lifetime of mothering great children: from Malcolm X in Spike Lee's film to Navy hero Carl Brashear ("Men of Honor"). Now, here's Honey. But there's no tension between mother and daughter, just McKee's eyes, rolling and tired. Hers is the face of a woman who wishes she'd given birth to Mariah Carey instead.

("Honey": **)

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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