CUBAN FURY Review: A Step Out of Time
When I was a senior in high school, I was captain of my High School Bowl team. High School Bowl was a 4-on-4, question-and-answer competition contested between local Delaware high schools. A moderator asked general-knowledge questions on random subjects, students offered answers, and whatever team had the most points at the end of roughly 30 minutes was the victor. It was broadcast live on cable access television.
We had a good team in ’85-’86 and we thought we had a chance to win the title. During elimination rounds, though, we took a large lead in the first half against another school but they came back and beat us. I won’t kid you; I was devastated. In the days that followed, I re-watched the tape like it was the Zapruder film, scribbling notes about everything from the validity of answers to the legitimacy of the length of each half of the competition (one “half” was longer than the other, which I thought might have been a rules infraction; it wasn’t). There was nothing to hang a protest on, and eventually I let it go.
Today, I think of that loss as just another high school memory, another moment that helped shape me to become who I am today. I don’t have the notes I took. I don’t have the tape. I don’t have a dusty spot on my mantle where the trophy/cup/obelisk was supposed to have been displayed. It happened. It’s over. Sadly, Hollywood doesn’t like a story that ends like that. Hollywood wants a character haunted by the one that got away. Hollywood wants a character who gets a shot at redemption, no matter how much time has passed.
Cuban Fury opens in the late 1980s, where 13-year-old Bruce Garrett (Ben Radcliffe) is a natural-born salsa dancer – one with “fire in his heels” – who, throughout his young yet furious career, takes home trophy after trophy in competitive salsa dancing. Then, on the night of the UK Junior Salsa Championship, Garrett is assaulted in the street by a gang of young bullies who aren’t too fond of Bruce’s shiny sequined shirt and the stereotype they think it represents. He never makes it to the competition, and rather than explain himself, he simply tells his coach, Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane), that dancing is no longer for him (but in much saucier language).
Fast-forward 25 years and Bruce is a corporate drone full of unfulfilled potential and crippling self-doubt, whose bullies have changed from punks on bikes to a singular: his relentlessly condescending manager Drew (Chris O’Dowd). But things change when his company installs Julia (Rashida Jones), an American, as an executive manager at Bruce’s office. He is smitten with her, and that feeling grows exponentially when he accidentally learns that she is taking salsa lessons. With an inspiration to ignite the fire in his heels again, Bruce buys himself some new shoes and tries to recapture his old moves. But it won’t be easy, as his old coach is a tough teacher, and his office nemesis has an eye for Julia, too.
Because the premise of Cuban Fury – a youthful failure followed by adulthood redemption – is one that has been frequently done to mixed results, the success of this film rests heavily on the cast and the screenplay. From the cast comes a mixed collection of performances. McShane does very little onscreen, really, other than look grizzled and act grizzly, and it is clear that the key to his humor is that he looks nothing like you would expect a salsa coach/instructor to look like. In fact, he doesn’t even dance (a great disappointment, honestly). O’Dowd continues to delight as he has in things he’s been in previously, even when he’s playing a jerk here. However, I’m putting him on RuddWatch: named after Paul Rudd, a wonderful comedic actor who just can’t seem to break out despite his talent and charm. O’Dowd could be the UK’s answer to Rudd.
Jones seems terribly out of sorts in the role of Julia. She doesn’t so much play an expat-exec as she plays an expat-exec asked to play an expat-exec in a corporate training film. She seems perfectly comfortable, radiant even, in her dance lesson scenes, when it seems she doesn’t know the camera is there, but her scenes interacting with people are stiff. On the other hand, completely at ease with everyone is relative newcomer Kayvan Novak. As the flaming metrosexual Bejan, a Middle-Eastern man Bruce meets when he signs up for refresher lessons, Novak lights up the screen by infusing an infectious comedic energy into his character. He is reminiscent of Bronson Pinchot‘s Serge from 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, if Serge were hopped up on a cocktail of every substance known to man that hops people up.
But the most wonderful surprise of the film is Frost himself. Because the story is cliché, the protagonist is going to be cliché as well. Frost brings to the character a touch I didn’t know the actor had. Without ever acting goofy or oafish or any of those other overtly comedic things a man with his resumé and size might be tempted to do, Frost not only portrays a man who has been haunted by this childhood tragedy, who has let its crippling grip remain tight on him, he deftly shows glimpses of coming out of the grasp AND being overcome by it again. It is great to watch. This is Frost’s best work to date.
Unfortunately, not even the mania of Novak nor the might Frost can save the film from the troubled screenplay. Sure, there are plenty of funny lines on the surface, but at the film’s problematic core, the entire story feels incredibly out of time.
The film opens in a quick 1980s flashback, but although the timeline moves quickly forward to present-day, the attitudes, the thinking, the references, and even a major plot point are all stuck in time some 25 years ago. The references are mostly mentions of 1980s film titles, song lyrics, or pop culture, but there are enough of them that they are quite noticeable. The bigger issue, the plot-point, revolves around a mix-tape with a custom inlay that Bruce makes for Julia when her favorite cassette is eaten by her car’s tape player. What?! In 2013?! I thought maybe, MAYBE, Julia drove an old beater from another era. Nope. She owns a new Hybrid. The existence of cassettes and the players that eat them rings so very untrue, and because the mix tape is integral to the story, it rings untrue for a long time.
More troubling than what some would call minor details is the thinking of the character collective and how antiquated it is. While I will be quick to give kudos to the fact that Frost’s size gets very little comedic attention, there is a sequence played for considerable laughs that is borderline homophobic, with subsequent references to said sequence later in the film, also played for uncomfortable laughs. I know we still have many societal miles to travel when it comes to same-sex relationships, but we’ve certainly come far enough that the gag plays as being cheap filler.
But the worst part of the ’80s-era attitudes is the endless sexism – up to a story climax that some people might call sexual assault of a superior – that is simply shrugged-off.
I’m no prude. Office men chase office women. It happens. And seeing it onscreen certainly doesn’t offend me. However, it’s entirely implausible that it goes on to the degree it does here without being stopped. Executive Julia, if she were fresh off the boat from 2013 Corporate America, would have had people fired for some of these things. Instead, she shrugs it all off ’80s style, like that’s the way offices are and she’s just a girl and that’s how girls should expect to be treated (even though she’s in charge of the place). And her ultimate solution to the problem seems to be constructed solely for a setup of a punchline that happens during the closing credits.
Cuban Fury, despite the genuine laughs it gets, is its own worst enemy. Even if you embrace all of the technical things that work and disregard the technical things that don’t, the pall the film’s script casts over those positive things is too heavy to ignore and too heavy for those positives to rise above. It wouldn’t surprise me if, one day, Nick Frost looks back on this film and approaches a studio to finance a remake. Remember, Hollywood loves a redemption story.