Friday, April 11, 2014

Cuban Fury

Cuban Fury
Dir. James Griffiths
3.5 out of 5
If you were to make a list of the ideal candidates to play the leading man in a dance-themed romantic comedy, odds are that Nick Frost (best known as the Falstaffian counterweight/BFF to Simon Pegg in Edgar Wright's "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogy) would be overlooked.  Still, I can't imagine anyone but Frost playing Bruce Garrett, the one-time salsa dancing prodigy at the center of Cuban Fury.  After a run-in with some bullies before a major competition derailed his dreams of dance-floor stardom, the shy Bruce has eased into a contented, if lonely, life as a mechanical engineer harboring a crush on his new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones).  As it happens, Julia is also a salsa dancer, providing Bruce with the spark he needs to reignite his passion not just for dance, but for life in general.
A underdog character study masquerading as a romance, Cuban Fury takes as much inspiration from Rocky as it does from the rom-com tradition.  There's the chauvinistic rival (Chris O'Dowd) who's constantly undermining the hero's sense of worth, the crusty mentor (Ian McShane) who uses unconventional methods to motivate his protégé, and the doubts that plague Bruce as he tries to let people into his life without letting them down.  And it's Frost's physicality that really sells the premise.  Not only is it much easier to share in Bruce's trials and triumphs with an actor who doesn't fit the traditional mold of a movie star, but it's genuinely exhilarating to watch him gain confidence and self-esteem as he reclaims a part of himself that went missing long ago.
A confident first feature for director James Griffiths and writer Jon Brown - both with plenty of prior TV experience - Cuban Fury still has its flaws apart from its awfully nondescript title.  There some broad elements that don't always mingle well with the film's refreshingly restrained sense of humor.  Jones adds another pleasant-yet-uninspired dream girl to a résumé of underwritten roles, and the flamboyantly gay novice dancer (Four Lions' Kayvan Novak) who befriends Bruce comes uncomfortably close to being a straight-up stereotype.
That being said, funny can forgive a lot, and Cuban Fury is a frequent generator of belly laughs.  The stacked supporting cast is capable of stealing scenes at any moment, whether it's the hilarious Novak playfully puncturing Bruce's uptight demeanor or McShane lovingly contributing his nasty streak to an otherwise gentle film.  Frost delivers a sweet-natured, charming performance that gives the humor an emotional resonance, detailing Bruce's attempts to remain hopeful in the face of life's disappointments.  Even at his lowest moments, Griffiths and Brown never make him the target of pity.  Cuban Fury cheerfully advances the notion that even our small-potatoes struggles are worth fighting, a happily low-key endeavor with a surplus of what's paradoxically missing from so many other romantic comedies:  heart.

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