British comedies, childhood trauma, Chris O'Dowd, cinema, comedies, Cuban Fury, dancers, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, foreign films, Ian McShane, James Griffiths, Kayvan Novak, Movies, Nick Frost, Olivia Colman, public opinion, Rashida Jones, romances, romantic rivalry, romantic-comedies, Rory Kinnear, salsa dancing, Strictly Ballroom, UK films
Fear of public ridicule can be a powerful mitigating factor, even for those of us who consider ourselves “above” such considerations: it can affect how one dresses, walks, talks, eats and slurps soup. Concern over our own self-image can result in “guilty musical pleasures,” “ironic” interests in pop culture and “hate-watching” programs rather than admitting to actually liking something “uncool.” If you think about it, it’s a pretty sad way to live: so concerned with the court of public opinion that you’d rather listen to something “respectable” than blast the Eddie Money cassette that you idolized as a kid. When folks can no longer feel free to leave the house wearing their most comfortable clothes, ladies and gentlemen, than the terrorists, whoever they may be, have truly won.
Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost), the heroic schlub at the heart of James Griffiths’ Cuban Fury (2014), knows all too well the high price of looking “uncool”: as a kid, Bruce was a salsa-dancin’ machine, a bespangled dance floor maestro who had the goods to go all the way. On his way to the championships, however, poor Bruce is accosted by a group of loutish teens who mock his shiny red outfit and beat the crap out of him in an alley. Properly chastised, our faithful protagonist vows never to dance again. We, of course, know better: once the dancing bug has bitten you, all you can do is hold on for dear life.
25 years later, Bruce is a buttoned-down, boring as white toast architect and any dreams of championship gold are too far in the rearview mirror to even consider. He’s got a decent job, a boring life and one of the biggest shit-heel co-workers of all time in Drew (Chris O’Dowd breaking the bank on obnoxious behavior): in other words, he’s probably like most of us. Unlike most of us, however, Bruce has got the dancing fever in his veins and, once in your DNA, you’re never completely free of it. All it takes is a little nudge, a wee reminder of how things used to be…how they could’ve been had the fork in the road gone a bit differently. All it takes is one little incident to change everything…if you let it.
Bruce’s “little incident” comes with his company’s new project manager, the adorably quirky American Julia (Rashida Jones). Bruce is sweet on her but she seems to be way out of his league, although horn-dog Drew, ever the cretin, sees her as “easy pickings.” When Bruce finds out that Julia is taking a salsa dancing class, he suddenly sees an in with her, although it means stepping back into his dreaded past and, once again, donning them dancin’ shoes. In order to prevent himself from looking like the rusty, out-of-step idiot he currently is, Bruce hunts down his old salsa coach, Ron (Ian McShane), and begs him to finish the tutelage he started 25 years earlier. Ron’s still a bit pissed off at Bruce, it turns out (being abandoned by your star pupil during a national championship will do that, apparently), but he eventually shelves his hard feelings and agrees to get Bruce ship-shape enough to duly impress Julia.
Since romantic comedies are nothing without a little rivalry, Drew decides that he’s in love with Julia, too, and determines to sweep her off her feet faster than Bruce can say “cha cha cha.” As he smugly puts it, “Women go and get advice from guys like you about guys like me.” This establishes a rivalry between the two that will result in a parking garage dance-off (impossibly silly but also fun) and will culminate in another salsa championship: will Bruce be able to overcome his old fears, put Drew in the rubbish pile, win the competition and get the girl or will this be another example of “too little, too late?” If you’ve ever seen another romantic comedy in your entire life, I’m reasonably sure you can figure out the answer to this ahead of time.
First off, Cuban Fury might seem a little familiar to fans of quirky British comedies since it is, for the most part, exactly like at least two dozen other similar films, from Kinky Boots (2005) to Brassed Off (1996), from The Full Monty (1997) to Calendar Girls (2003). Specifically, Griffiths’ feature-debut reminds me of the cult-classic Aussie flick Strictly Ballroom (1992), which was also about a neebish overcoming the court of public opinion to succeed on his own terms. For the most part, Cuban Fury does nothing to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack although, to be fair, there’s not much it drops the ball on, either. All of the expected beats/scenes are here: the bit where Bruce’s gay friend finally drags him to a nightclub to “let loose”; the dance-off between Bruce and Drew; the climatic finale at the salsa championship; the training montage…Cuban Fury manages to tick each and every one off the list.
Truth be told, despite its complete familiarity, Cuban Fury is a fun, sweet and spirited little film, full of great performances from the likes of Frost, Jones and O’Dowd (even playing a real asshole, O’Dowd is relentlessly watchable and charismatic: anyone else would have played Drew like a complete Neanderthal but O’Dowd somehow makes him kind of pitiable…kind of) and is a quick, fun watch. The script, written by Jon Brown from an idea by Frost, is full of some nice dialogue (Bruce and Drew trade some snappy zingers throughout the film) and everything gets wrapped up in a pretty tidy package by the end. McShane is great as the grumpy salsa expert, although Jones doesn’t do much noticeably different from any of her other roles: she has some decent chemistry with Frost but no one will mistaken them for star-crossed lovers anytime soon. The film’s many dance scenes are nicely realized, with some effective choreography but, again, nothing mind-blowing: this probably won’t make anyone forget Luhrmann’s debut any time soon.
More than anything, my takeaway from Cuban Fury is thus: if you’re looking for a nice, polite, fairly non-challenging romantic comedy with a good cast, Cuban Fury is for film. At the very least, I find it hard to believe that any audience would walk away from this without a smile on their faces. Will you remember the film a year (or even six months) from now? Highly doubtful. Not everything in life needs to be a grand slam, however: sometimes, you can get the same results with a humble little pop-up into the outfield.