The new hip-hop musical “Honey” wallows in nostalgia for the timeless awfulness of the post-disco 1980s. There’s breakdancing, flashdancing, and even a few moves borrowed from Tom Cruise’s athletic bartender in “Cocktail.”
All that's missing is the lambada. Maybe the producers are saving that for “Honey II,” though they shouldn’t be too hopeful. Much of the script is a moldy throwback to the backstage cliches of 60 and 70 years ago, when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were forever staging backyard musicals, and show-biz innocents were being told to “go out there and put on a good show.”
That last line is actually spoken in “Honey,” which was written by first-time screenwriters Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson and directed by another first-timer, Bille Woodruff. His music videos for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys landed him the job, which he handles with a slickness so mechanical that it’s a little scary.
The storyline revolves around 22-year-old Honey Daniels (Jessica Alba), who has moved away from her bossy mother (Lonette McKee) and patient father (Anthony Sherwood) and is hoping to get a break as a New York dancer. Her hero-mentor appears to arrive in the form of Michael (David Moscow), who casts her in a music video and mails her a $9,000 check.
He also turns out to be a major sleazebag with the casting couch in mind, and he ends up sending her back to her reliable boyfriend Chaz (Mekhi Phifer), and her goofy best friend Gina (Joy Bryant). Honey uses the money as a down payment on her own dance studio, which she plans to use to keep neighborhood kids off the streets, off drugs and out of jail.
When she’s strapped and can’t raise the rest of the cash, she does what every put-on-a-show veteran does: she stages a benefit that provides the movie with its exuberant climax. This finale, complete with a catchy new song, “I Believe,” is the movie’s high point, and it leaves the audience in a forgiving mood.
Still, there is much too much to forgive, beginning with a series of “Flashdance” rip-offs that take the characters nowhere interesting. The filmmakers are quite upfront about their affection for “Flashdance,” which was Alba’s childhood favorite (she looks a little like Jennifer Beals) as well as a touchstone film for Woodruff (especially its music).
But the original “Flashdance” relied more on fast editing than creative dance; Laurieann Gibson’s choreography for “Honey” is far more imaginative. And Woodruff does better when he’s paying homage to such class acts as “West Side Story,” by duplicating and jazzing up its zooming-in-on-Manhattan aerial shots.
Alba, who played “Max,” a genetically enhanced human prototype in James Cameron’s “Dark Angel” television series, works hard to hold the picture together. But like Phifer, who was so effective as the teenage Othello character in “O,” and Moscow, who was so winning in Disney’s “Newsies,” she’s wasting her efforts on a script that offers few rewards.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com.