Thursday, February 6, 2014

'Cuban Fury' (2014) directed by James Griffiths

Cuban Fury is a movie with an admirably pure focus.  Within this cinematic world, salsa is both the cause of, and solution to every conceivable problem.  I've got a big soft spot for films with this myopic view of the world, enjoying both Pitch Perfect (acapella) and Speed Racer (racing cars) for behaving like their subject is the only thing in the universe that truly matters.  These fluffy films are a pleasant escape from reality: a peek into a soft-edged universe where genuine happiness is just a click of your cuban heels away.

Nick Frost plays Bruce Garrett, a former child salsa dancing champion.  After a traumatic experience with a gang of street kids he hangs up his dancing gear - tearfully yelling "salsa is for pussies!".  25 years later the former dancing king has metastasised into a dumpy designer of industrial lathes, victimised by his cruel alpha-male workmate Drew (Chris O'Dowd).  Though he's financially and professionally secure there's something missing from his hum-drum life, but he can't quite put his finger on what. The arrival of new boss Julia (Rashida Jones) soon settles that question.  She's beautiful, funny, kind, single and (conveniently) she loves salsa.  And so the besotted Bruce straps on his dancing shoes once more, desperate to re-ignite the long quenched latin fire in his heart and prove his love for her (through the medium of salsa dancing).

I don't give two shits about salsa dancing, so the fact that by the end I was reasonably invested in Bruce getting his groove back is proof that Cuban Fury basically works.  By no stretch of the imagination is this at all adventurous, treating the standard romcom template as gospel. You can see every plot beat coming a mile away, and the fact that the finale takes place at a glittery dance contest is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  This is undeniably cliched guff, but at least it's competently delivered cliched guff.

The film just about makes this relationship seem plausible.
The wrinkle that sets this apart from the crowd is the casting of Nick Frost as a romantic lead.  Frost is an eminently likeable screen presence, endearing himself to audiences as the Simon Pegg's sidekick and nicely combining vulnerability with a childlike enthusiasm.  He's so likeable a part of me feared that the humour of Cuban Fury would be predicated on making fun of a fat guy trying to dance.  Don't get me wrong - they do repeatedly crack these jokes, but they come from an affectionate place - for the most part we're laughing with rather than at Bruce.  It's probably a testament to Frost's genuinely great acting chops that we can just about buy that a woman as beautiful as Rashida Jones could maaaaaaybe, possibly, fall for him.

That said, this central romance is pretty creaky. Julia is a shade too perfect and we're given no insight into who she is other than that she's nice, pretty and likes salsa. That doesn't add up to a three-dimensional character and so Julia ultimately ends up as an idealised object of desire - occupying the same narrative function as a dance competition trophy.  Also frustrating is the film's refusal to go for a proper romantic denouement, chickening out of showing us any physical passion between the two outside of dancing.  I get that the sight of Nick Frost getting hot and heavy with Rashida Jones might not be a prospect that gets bums on seats, but if you're going to make him a romantic lead then dammit, don't chicken out on the final lap!

At minimum this proves that Nick Frost can carry a film.
Papering over these cracks is a rock solid supporting cast.  An obvious highlight is Chris O'Dowd as a villainous, horny workmate with lecherous designs on Julia.  This isn't exactly challenging material, but O'Dowd is obviously having a good time playing a moustache-twirling baddie.  Another obvious feather in the film's cap is Olivia Colman as Bruce's boozy sister.  After her stellar 2013 it's a little disappointing seeing Colman still relegated to bit roles in British comedy films and like O'Dowd she seems largely on autopilot.  Fortunately Colman's autopilot is head and shoulders above most actor's A-games. She's got such good chemistry with Frost that it's tempting to wish that she'd been cast as the object of his affection - she certainly has the dancing chops for the part.  

Rounding out this cast is Kayvan Novak as a flamboyantly gay salsa maniac; the character such an on-the-nose stereotype that he somehow transcends offensiveness. Ian McShane also makes a mark as a grumpy salsa Mr Miyagi, delivering some prime sweary dialogue. The only truly wasted bit of casting is Rory Kinnear in an underwritten and superfluous role as one of Bruce's friends.  This seriously impressive ensemble cast contains enough raw talent to make something genuinely brilliant, so it's arguably a wasted opportunity for them to have lent their talents to a film with no ambitions beyond being moderately entertaining.

Though it doesn't set its sights high Cuban Fury knows exactly what kind of film it is and achieves its cinematic goals with a minimum of fuss and with few bumps in the road.  It's not the funniest film in the world but it definitely has its moments, particularly in a nicely surreal 'salsa' kung fu battle between Frost and O'Dowd.  Perhaps most importantly it takes salsa seriously.  Unlikely as it might seem, Nick Frost can dance and the climactic sequences where he finally cuts loose approach a weird kind of salsa exhilaration.  Cuban Fury isn't going to set anyone's world on fire, but as far as British romcoms about corpulent salsa dancers go it's probably about as good as it could be.  


Cuban Fury is on general release 14 February 2014.

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