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Ebiri on Cuban Fury: A Salsa Movie That’s Overheated in Just the Right Ways

It would be silly to make too great a case for Cuban Fury, which is the sort of pleasant diversion whose poster already tells you everything you need to know about the movie. I’m not sure I’ve even seen a poster for the movie, but let me guess: It probably features Nick Frost in a red shirt making some sort of exaggerated salsa move, while Rashida Jones and Chris O’Dowd pose similarly somewhere nearby, and Ian McShane glares swarthily in the background. (Okay, I just checked, and apparently there’s no Ian McShane in the poster.) Anyway, that’s pretty much the movie. Still, it’s got a few moves on it that might surprise you.

It starts off with a flashback montage to our hero Bruce’s childhood, when he was gripped by salsa fever and became a competitive dancer, racking up trophy after trophy. (“Cuban heels, silk shirt, a thousand hand-sewn sequins … Once I had that fire in my heels, it never went out!”) But on the night of one of his biggest competitions, Bruce was assailed by a group of bullies calling him a pussy. Humiliated, he gave up dancing and withdrew into himself. The cut showing that the young, limber salsa champ has grown-up to be an obese Nick Frost working a miserable office job is heartbreaking.

Great things can grow in unlikely places, however, and one day, in shimmies Bruce’s new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones). She’s beautiful, kind, and takes a genuine interest in him. But Bruce’s work partner, the unnaturally confident and oversexed Drew (Chris O’Dowd), has also noticed Julia, and soon the wise-cracking banter between the two friends has transformed into a sad romantic rivalry. Well, it would be a rivalry, only Bruce gives up the ghost pretty much immediately. “She is not of my world,” he wanly concedes, letting Drew carry the day with his gross sexual innuendoes. (Leering at Julie, the latter triumphantly declares, “I would make a splash inside of that like a milk truck hitting a wall.”)

But then Bruce discovers that Julie is a salsa-dancing fiend. And slowly, he begins to come out of his shell, secretly starting to train again and recover his old moves, all the while fighting against the ticking clock of Drew’s relentless libido. We know the template: Even the obligatory, embittered, alcoholic ex-coach (McShane) shows up out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, our hero starts going out to the clubs, accompanied by his new friend Bejan (Kayvan Novak), a young flamboyant Iranian who makes ‘80s movie references as he gives Bruce a makeover.

Still, Cuban Fury has a surprising amount of fun with these acknowledged clichés. At times, the movie has the energy of an Anchorman-style spoof — a hilarious late-movie dance-off between Bruce and Drew takes on absurdist overtones, as they dance on car roofs and do increasingly impossible moves. But all that’s also undergirded by a quaint emotional seriousness on Frost’s part. He wrote the story, but his character, trying slowly to emerge from a world of broken dreams, goes against the film’s general current of unhinged parody. It’s interesting to see this actor play a character so helpless and childlike. In his collaborations with Simon Pegg, he tends to be savvy, if deluded; here, he’s pathetic. And while he’s made a name for himself playing the Fat Guy, I’d never realized how physical an actor Frost is: His weight literally seems to shift with his emotions. (Later in the film, after he regains his salsa-dancing skills, I could swear the guy had dropped 50 pounds between shots.)

Meanwhile, director James Griffiths fills the screen with deep reds and long shadows, the better to express the hothouse eroticism of salsa. If dance movies are almost always really about our hero or heroine getting the girl and/or guy, Cuban Fury makes that subtext tactile: As the movie grows visually darker, as the lights go down and the gyrating, spinning dancers crowd the screen, the dance really becomes, as they say, the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. And you realize that the film’s odd, knowing mix of sincerity and silliness fits right in with salsa’s own blend of exaggeration and desire, of laughs and lust.

Photo: Entertainment One Films