Cuban Fury banks on clichés, but plays so well and is suffused with such joy, that it’s hard not to be utterly charmed.
We’ve all seen this kind of story before. As someone who survived the late 1990s wave of twee British working-class-people-do-something-crazy-to-earn-money-and-regain-their-composure subgenre, I have certainly seen this story at least a dozen times in the past. I think the film that sparked it was The Full Monty in 1997, a film which everyone (including me) loved at the time, but which has mysteriously gone unmentioned over the course of the last decade. Seriously, no one seems to bring it up anymore. This is a spotty genre that has produced some good films and some bad. Amongst its members are films like Calendar Girls, Waking Ned Devine, Cosi, A Midwinter’s Tale, Saving Grace, and Kinky Boots.
James Griffiths’ Cuban Fury follows a lot of the clichés you’re used to. The main character is Bruce (Nick Frost), a schlubby 35-year-old office wonk who lives alone and who is seen, early in the film, eating an entire four-pack of single-serve pudding in a single take (and, for Frost’s sake, I hope he only had to do that once). Bruce is good at his job, but is constantly shown up by his more assertive co-worker Drew (Chris O’Dowd), who gets more action that he. Bruce has a good relationship with his feisty sister (the delightful Olivia Colman), but seems stuck in a rut. Then he meets his brand new American boss Julia (the sentient smile, Rashida Jones), and decides to charm her with a talent he had given up on decades previous: salsa dancing. Yes, Bruce is a salsa dancer at heart, as has to re-ignite the Cuban within him to win the heart of Julia and regain his self-confidence.
What follows is a string of scenes we’ve all seen before: Bruce returns to lessons, meets his old teacher (Ian McShane), overcomes his old insecurities, and does dance battles with Chris O’Dowd. But, oddly enough, in a film that – on paper – sounds like it should be rote and dull, this all works. Not a single cast member sleepwalks through Cuban Fury, wringing every last bit of sparkle out of their lightweight characters. Frost, as many of us know, is a hugely talented comedian, and he proves to be an ample leading man. O’Dowd is over-the-top as the selfish charmer, making for a funny rival. Jones is too charming to criticize, and McShane has always been compelling and glowering as room-stealers (if you haven’t seen the British crime drama 44-Inch Chest, I recommend it). Heck even the borderline-offensive gay stereotype character – a distant echo of Hank Azaria from The Birdcage – is funny more often than he is insufferable.
For a film that seems to stem from a single joke – i.e. “a fat guy dances salsa??” – Cuban Fury proves to be bright, brisk, and golden. I have seen too many dull, sitcom-like comedies that only barely coast by on the charm of their lead actors. Cuban Fury feels more like a complete film, replete with likeable characters, fun situations, and scenes of actual comedy. It’s damn funny. I was particularly fond of the scene wherein Frost and McShane re-bond over drinks and children’s board games. By the time we get to the big climactic dance-off (and of course there’s a big climactic dance-off), you may actually feel energized and, dig this: happy.
The only quibble I have is the lack of actual dancing. Frost learned a lot of the steps, but it was clear – through clever editing – that he wasn’t doing a lot of his own dancing. But this is a general complaint of mine about modern song-and-dance movies. Aside from the Step Up franchise (which I will never stop praising), no film has enough dancing for this theater major.
Rating: 4 Burritos