Fat Guy Salsa Dances. That should have been this movie’s name, for that is this movie’s raison d’être. This British comedy is the latest underdog tale in the tradition of The Full Monty and Kinky Boots (so expect a Cuban Fury musical in about three years time). And it gives Nick Frost a chance to shine. Or, at the very least, prove that big guys have the moves too.
On the surface, this is a pleasing development. Nick Frost has spent his career as a stealth weapon in Edgar Wright’s comedic arsenal, and supporting roles in works as varied as Pirate Radio and Snow White and the Huntsman have proved that he is more than capable of bringing laughs when there is no Cornetto to be found. So why not cast Nick Frost as a romantic lead and let him show off his comedic and dramatic chops at the same time? Cuban Fury does just that, and while the results leave Frost mostly unscathed, you can’t help but think there’s a whole lot of talent here that is being wasted.
The story concerns Bruce Garrett (Frost) a former salsa champion who cast aside his smooth moves after some teens bullied and beat him while he was on his way to the nationwide championships in 1987. With his dancing past beside him, he now spends his days working as an engineer and dealing with dickish co-worker Drew (a wonderfully cast-against-type Chris O’Dowd). Their lives are thrown into turmoil when their company hires new American manager Julia (Rashida Jones). Both men take an immediate shine to her, and when Bruce learns that his would-be paramour is a, gasp, salsa dancer, he decides to put down the lathe and put on the Tito Puente.
He asks his old dancing instructor Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane) for some refresher courses so that he can get back in step to win Julia’s heart. Before you can say “Mr. Miyagi,” Ron is helping Bruce realize that he still possesses the salsa fire inside of him. Acting as Bruce’s cheerleaders are his sister/former partner Sam (Olivia Colman) and flamboyant fellow dancer Bejan (Kayvan Novak, in full Bronsot Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop mode). Of course, things aren’t going to be that easy for Bruce. Drew also wants to land Julia, and while he might not have the moves of his bigger rival he does have the self-confidence. Can Bruce possibly find success in his love life and on the dance floor?
Spoiler alert: Duh.
It’s not like viewers enter into Cuban Fury expecting Fincher-esque twists, but there’s no reason that director James Griffiths (Showtime’s Episodes) and writer Jon Brown (working from an original story by Frost) can’t make these characters work a bit harder before they reach the film’s foregone conclusion of an ending. I dream of a world where this film’s third act morphs into a hybrid of Strictly Ballroom and BearCity and concludes with Bruce and Bejan realizing their love. Sadly, viewers are left with the most predictable and safe outcome possible. So let us all take a moment to lament the British comedic edginess usered in by shows like Jam while somewhere a single tear falls from Chris Morris’ eye.
The second, and possibly more troubling, issue with the film is lack of humor on display given the film’s stellar cast. As fans of Britcoms like Spaced, The IT Crowd and Peep Show will be quick to point out, Frost, O’Dowd and Colman are amongst this generation’s finest British comedic actors, yet here they are reduced to milking what comedy they can from the milquetoast script. (For what it’s worth, the best lines in the film are the random 1980s references from Kayvan Novak’s character). Making matters worse are an unfortunate gay panic subplot, an equally confounding plot device involving seemingly the only Prius left in existence that has a tape deck, and the complete lack of anything approaching romantic chemistry between Frost and Jones. And for the love of all that is good and pure in this universe, if you have Ian McShane in your motion picture, please use him accordingly. Or, at the very least, have him say “cocksucker” then wink at the camera before vanishing into the ether.
Here’s the thing: If you were to see this movie on HBO during one of those Sunday afternoons spent trying to keep the Fireball Whiskey dry heaves at bay you would probably find it to be perfectly passable. Frost is a charming screen presence, his acting is fine during the dramatic bits, and while he may not have the moves of Jagger he certainly looks better on the dance floor than any large-and-not-so-in-charge dude that I have ever seen. But there’s only room in the universe for one strangely safe romantic comedy starring a Spaced cast member and Simon Pegg got there first with Run, Fatboy, Run. Better luck next time though Nick.