Chuck lets Alba have her cake–and eat it

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      Vancouver–On a patio at UBC's Cecil Green House, Jessica Alba and Dane Cook have spent an entire afternoon eating cake while shooting Good Luck Chuck. For each take of the scene, in which the actors meet at a wedding dinner, Cook improvises new terms of dissatisfaction for the pastry. "This cake tastes like prison rape," he remarks at one point. According to Alba, Cook isn't too far off the mark. After the scene is completed, the lad-mag favourite–who's made her name in comic-book adaptations like Sin City and the Fantastic Four movies–jokes about weird "pubic" hairs she found in her cake.

      Later in the afternoon, Cook says it's this lack of squeamishness that marks Alba, now starring in her first comedy, as a natural funny girl. "I saw her hosting the [2006] MTV Movie Awards and she knocked it out of the park. I knew in five minutes she had it," recalls the sideburn-toting comedian, a veteran of standup. He turns to Alba, seated next to him in an echoey solarium inside the UBC heritage mansion: "You have no fear in the physicality. You could do standup. I could write you a five-minute routine."

      Alba, who shares Cook's love for the trashy reality-TV show Cheaters, quickly returns the praise. "It's easy to be funny with Dane. When I'm embarrassing myself badly, he comes to my rescue and gives me pointers."

      Virtually unknown three years ago, the 35-year-old Cook has seen his career catapult partly due to his mastery of on-line social networking, which, in 2005, earned him a place on Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People and sent his second comedy CD release, Retaliation, to a No. 4 debut on the Billboard charts. Cook's detractors have drawn comparisons between his standup and his frat-boy fan base. Yet his populist style and clean-cut good looks have a middle-of-the-road appeal, making him less suited to dubious fare such as Beerfest and Van Wilder and more like comedy's equivalent of Dave Matthews.

      In a way, Cook's transition into film acting parallels his costar's turn to comedy. "For a long time, I envisioned taking my thing into film like some of the guys I admired, like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Jack Black," says Cook, whose early acting experience included a five-episode stint on Maybe This Time, a '90s sitcom starring Betty White and Marie Osmond. "But that also means taking another step into vulnerability."

      For Cook, venturing into vulnerability meant finding the emotion behind the story of a man living every man's fantasy. In Chuck, Cook plays a dentist whose ex-girlfriends find true love immediately after splitting up with him. When word spreads about his lucky charms, women start seeking him out in droves. "He has as many chicks as he could want who want nothing but sex from him," Alba says. "I haven't met one man who wouldn't want that at some point in their life."

      But for how long? "From 23 to 25, I was living the rock-star life on the road," Cook says. "It's a curse and a blessing for a guy. No ramifications, no aftereffects. Through time, that switches, and you start to wonder: 'When's a girl going to care about me?'"

      Cook's Chuck hopes to change his luck with Alba's character, a klutzy penguin specialist named Cam. Alba, clad in a beige summer frock and Ugg boots, might not be stepping on-stage at Yuk Yuk's anytime soon, but she's nevertheless engaging and quick to quip. "I think I'm a penguin whisperer," says the 26-year-old from Pomona, California, about working with the birds in a zoo in Edmonton, where the film was also shot. "They can sense your fear, and I don't have any real fear of penguins. I'd give them little massages in the neck and they would rest in my hand."

      For Alba, whose love life is the subject of endless speculation in the media, the groom-hungry single woman is more of a comic conceit than a reality. "Speaking as a younger woman, I find that there are a lot of single women who aren't trying to be in relationships and are career-driven."

      Cook may be hoping to break his streak of box-office flops with beautiful actors named Jessica. His appearance with Alba comes after roles in 2005's London with Jessica Biel and last year's Employee of the Month opposite Jessica Simpson. Cook's turn in Chuck could determine whether he has a film career like Steve Martin or one like Jimmy Fallon or Jeff Foxworthy.

      "I'm actually going to appear in a CGI movie with Jessica Tandy," Cook deadpans. "And a movie with Jessica Rabbitt. But my favourite Jessica is right here. Look at those eyelashes."

      "If I weren't here, his answer would be different," Alba jokes, batting those famously long lashes. "He's a charmer."