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I am a complete sucker when it comes to movies about people dancing, a fact that is probably more responsible for my enjoyment of Cuban Fury than its actual merits. Endlessly formulaic and occasionally dispiritingly cruel, Nick Frost’s pet project (he wrote it in addition to starring in it) offers audiences exactly what they have come to expect from a serio-comical journey of self-discovery, set against the backdrop of a marginalized/obscure/little known artistic subculture. But winning performances from Frost and his co-star Rashida Jones, as well as some moderately inspiring dance sequences, elevate Cuban Fury to — well, the ranks of the better of these films, even if it’s otherwise just generically engaging.
Frost plays Bruce Garrett, a machinist who abandoned a promising career as a salsa dancer when he was 10 after a group of bullies pummeled him on the night of the national championships. Shuffling through his day in the shadow of his sleazy-lothario coworker Drew (Chris O’Dowd), Bruce tries not to make waves, and where possible avoid insults about his weight. But when an American named Julia (Jones) becomes the boss of his division, an unexpected rivalry emerges between Bruce and Drew for her attention.
Accidentally discovering that Julia loves to salsa dance, Bruce’s impulse to dance comes roaring back to life. But even if he can convince his cantankerous old coach Ron (Ian McShane) to train him as an adult, Bruce must overcome the insecurities and fears he’s accumulated for decades if he’s going to be able to tap into the passion and confidence that once made his performances on the dance floor so special.
In many ways, Cuban Fury is a throwback to ‘80s movies like The Karate Kid, offering a feckless protagonist the chance not only to shine, but to embrace the confidence that their bullies try to beat out of them. (It also features a sequence where Bruce creates a bona fide mix tape for Julia, complete with inlay.) But as charmingly anachronistic as that formula may be, it’s also one that between then and now has been explored, worked out and copied so many times that audiences can predict what will happen before it occurs. And the problem isn’t that he eventually gets his confidence back, or becomes a terrific dancer again, but that we have to watch him endure the exact same setbacks and face virtually identical insecurities as every other ugly duckling before he does.
That said, where the film is decidedly unique is in its deplorable attitude towards most of its female characters by its male ones. Notwithstanding a few potty-mouthed zingers, Drew is entirely despicable, exuding a kind of insincerity that any real woman would spot from a mile away, but even if he’s all talk and no action, the movie makes little effort to reinforce that, especially once he’s ingratiated himself to Julia. Meanwhile, Bruce’s pal Gary offers plenty of his own distasteful observations about his buddy’s potential love interest, and the supporting characters’ repeated objectification and dehumanization of their female counterparts eventually just becomes gross.
To be fair, these same male characters are probably equally mean to Bruce himself, constantly calling him fat and otherwise insulting him. But Bruce’s inactivity, his sort of helpless surrender to their verbal attacks, eventually becomes just plain maddening to the audience. Surely, even without losing his temper, he could say to his best friend, “Maybe knock it off with the fat jokes?” But then again, if he weren’t so put down, so fully defeated by his own life, perhaps his redemption wouldn’t feel as rewarding.
While Frost is a proficient dancer, and he does a solid job of acting like a former prodigy trying recapture old glories, at least the film doesn’t make the argument that he’s a prize winner – and anyway, the point is to reconnect with the thing he loves, not win trophies, right? But no matter what his motivation was, is or becomes, it’s quite frankly easy to see how Julia could rekindle that impulse; Jones is an actress who exudes easygoing, accessible intelligence, and she has a natural charm that would probably make most guys take up a sport, trade or skill to earn notice. She gives a really appealing, effective performance here that, to her biggest credit, manages to be believable without trying to convince the audience that she’s head over heels for Bruce, who honestly is as Drew says the kind of guy who will be her best friend while offering advice on guys like him.
That of course is not to say that Jones, or Julia, couldn’t be romantically interested in Frost, or Bruce, but that the movie doesn’t find as much romantic chemistry between them as it does potential for a probably pretty meaningful friendship. But then again, when all of her other options are sexist pigs, it seems entirely possible he might prevail just by virtue of his differences from his competition.
Finally, though, there’s the dancing, which as I indicated above is probably the best thing in the movie. Frost seems to have a genuine passion for the salsa, and he throws himself into it with a wild, charming abandon – and consequently there’s nothing more appealing than watching someone do something they enjoy well. If only that thing Frost did well in this case was write a less conventional, more interesting screenplay, then this film might have been truly special. But as is, Cuban Fury is a fun routine where it’s the audience, not the performer, who’s counting the steps, knowing exactly where they’re going long before the music ends.
Cuban Fury hits theaters April 11.