The key to salsa, that fiery Latin-inspired dance form, is el corazon, heart, at least according to James Griffiths’ big-screen debut, Cuban Fury. By the greatest of coincidences, the same appears to be true for romantic comedy, a genre blend that can pleasantly coast on formula so long as it has its ventricles in the right place. For every trope, cliché, and easy out in which Cuban Fury indulges, it remains cheery, pleasant, unbelievably sweet and endlessly fun; you will likely engage your brain with far more complex and rewarding cinema throughout 2014, but very few of those pictures will be so embarrassingly endearing as Griffiths’.
Cuban Fury’s basic conceit treads the same familiar ground that Will Ferrell and Kevin James have left sinkholes in over the last decade, jamming its star into the world of competitive salsa for laughs. But Nick Frost, unlike Ferrell and James, is infinitely likable, an actor whose entire persona rests heavily on his unfailing decency and amiability. If Cuban Fury boasts its share of comic incredulity over the idea that Frost could last an evening on the dance floor just sticking to the fundamentals, he’s just so damn genial that we almost take those japes personally on his behalf. Rooting for Frost is easy, and that goes a long way toward sustaining Cuban Fury’s palatability.
Frost plays Bruce, a former salsa champion in his youth whose glory days are long behind him. Bruce hasn’t danced in twenty five years, the result of an ill-fated encounter with a gang of bullies on the eve of the most important competition of his career. As we meet him in the present, he’s a self-made loser, working at an office job that brings him little joy and taking respite from life by reaffirming his loneliness every week with his friends (Rory Kinnear and Tim Plester) as they play a few rounds of golf and commiserate over their sexual failings. His life, in short, sucks, until he lays eyes on his new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones) and becomes instantly besotted.
What transpires after their first meeting is a fairly boilerplate slurry of rom-com conventions and the staples of all underdog tales; Bruce determines to cease being the shrub his very name pegs him as, and to win Julia’s affections through the mesmerizing, passionate allure of salsa. You’ve pretty much seen Cuban Fury already, at least if you’ve seen even a single uplifting sports film about losers becoming winners, but Griffiths’ iteration on this genre-blend has pep. If you won’t be wowed with originality or dazzled with bravura craftsmanship, you won’t be bored, either, and there’s a strong chance you’ll be more than reasonably entertained.
No one will mistake Cuban Fury for risk-taking, envelope-pushing material—it has practically no edge, just a whole candy shop’s worth of sweetness. This is, after all, a picture about a zero becoming a hero, regaining his self-confidence (as well as his manhood, if the film’s plethora of Freudian imagery is lost on you), and winning the girl. It plays by a certain set of rules in service to very specific expectations. Griffiths doesn’t care about ruminating on the spirit of man. He just wants to make his viewers feel warm and fuzzy while they have a chuckle. But the predictable, familiar sweetness he fosters never becomes overly-saccharine, and the film has just enough bite that it keeps well away from sugary realms of preciousness.
Most of that bite comes from Ian McShane, playing Bruce’s old salsa mentor, a salty, grouchy codger whose primary purpose in life, it seems, is to show up and drop a few cusses here and there. He also occasionally drags Bruce kicking and screaming through a few random catharses, though he’s joined in that task by an array of other characters—Bruce’s sister, Sam (Olivia Colman), his obnoxious co-worker and competition in love, Drew (Chris O’Dowd), and his flamboyant salsa comrade, Bejan (Kayvan Novak, who you may remember as Waj, the loveably dopey terrorist from 2010’s Four Lions). They’re a pack of delights, all told, but Frost, naturally, is the film’s center.
While it certainly doesn’t hurt that Frost has a terrific troupe of actors in his corner, he’s so on-point and in control of Bruce’s every facet that he almost doesn’t need the back-up. He effortlessly goes from being an insect pinned to a name placard to being a believable salsa maestro, using his nice guy charm in tandem with his trenchant talent for instilling his characters with deeply laid sadness. You’ll want to give Bruce a hug at his low points and cheer at his high points. You’ll probably even want to go dancing with him sometime.
A bit of a practical warning for those expecting to get lots of bravura rug-cutting out of Cuban Fury’s running time: come for the salsa, but stay for the comedy. Griffiths doesn’t skimp on the dance, per se, but his stars aren’t actual salsa gods, and since they provide the film’s focal points, much of the actual dancing takes place in the background while quick, shrewd edits fill up the majority of the camera’s frame. Necessary tricks, yes, but those possessed—like Bruce—by a love for salsa should look elsewhere for more dedicated displays of prowess. Those inclined toward laughter and darling, heartfelt storytelling, on the other hand, may be all too happy to let Cuban Fury lead them across the dance floor.
Director: James Griffiths
Writer: Jon Brown
Starring: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Olivia Colman, Ian McShane, Keyan Novak, Wendi McLendon-Covey
Release Date: Apr. 11, 2014