I love the idea of Nick Frost as a romantic lead in a film in which he does all of his own salsa dancing. And CUBAN FURY is an easy film to love. It's a genuine crowd pleaser; it's R-rated but I think you could still take your mom to see it as long as your plugged her ears whenever Chris O'Dowd enters the frame—usually crotch first—as Drew, a vulgarian co-worker of Frost's Bruce Garrett. But on a more subtle level, the film is also about reinventing yourself, a theme I suspect is very much on Frost's mind.
He and his constant co-workers Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright have completed a major chapter of the filmmaking lives with last year's THE WORLD's END. With CUBAN FURY , Frost has essentially recast himself a bit, not so you wouldn't recognize him, but just enough that he's playing a more thoughtful and emotionally fragile version of the man he played in THE WORLD'S END.
The film opens with 13-year-old Bruce about to ace the UK Junior Salsa Championships, with his dance partner/sister Sam (played as an adult by the great Olivia Colman (HOT FUZZ, TYRANNOSAUR) and their coach, Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane). On the way to the final in his sequined shirt and Cuban heels, Bruce is beat up by bullies, which shatters his confidence and he refuses to dance ever again. But as an adult, he meets his new, attractive American boss Julia (Rashida Jones of I LOVE YOU, MAN and "Parks & Recreation"), whom he finds out is learning salsa. Eager to impress her, he decides to reacquaint himself with the heels and look up his old instructor to help him get his Latin groove back. The one wrench on the road to Julia is the aforementioned Drew, who swaggers himself into Julia's eyeline and turns up the charm when he notices that Bruce is interested.
Director James Griffiths (whose most recent work includes the television series "Up All Night" and "Episodes") and master cinematographer Dick Pope have created a lush environment for the dancing to occur. A film-ending dance competition is loaded with colorful lights and fit, shiny bodies to dance under them. But at other moments, the film is appropriately moody, even sad, reflecting Bruce's internal turbulence about women and his life in general. It's actually an aesthetic choice that works surprisingly well.
As for the cast, O'Dowd pretty much just robs every scene he steps into. After seeing him play such a nice guy in so many supporting roles over the years (from BRIDESMAIDS to most recently in THOR: THE DARK WORLD), it's fun seeing him rock out with his wank out. There's a dancing showdown between Bruce and Drew that is actually more important in terms of this particular story than even the final dance competition, and the two men combine high stepping with a bit of wire fu for some great physical comedy in a film that doesn't get many laughs at the expense of Bruce's dancing abilities (Frost is quite good).
Jones has never been a great comedy force, but her strengths lie in her reactions and playing it straight. She's the perfect foil for both O'Dowd and Frost, and certainly has plenty of awkward personality issues of her own to keep us believing that maybe Julia and Bruce aren't quite as mismatched as you might at first think. And then there's McShane, who's simply a maniac and teaches dance like a pirate captain. I'll love him until the day I die.
The film's secret weapon is Kayvan Novak (FOUR LIONS) as Bejan, a Middle Eastern fellow dance student with Bruce, who helps the man uncomfortable in his own skin gain a little bit more confidence with a wardrobe makeover. I guess the character is supposed to be gay, but the guy is so damn funny it barely plays into the story at all. Other great supporting work from Alexandra Roach and the great stage actor Rory Kinnear does wonders to boost what could have been an emotionally bare experience.
In the end, it is Frost's read on Bruce that keeps the film emotionally honest and grounded in a type of heightened reality. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the music and dancing is glorious and well worth getting excited about. I don't know if CUBAN FURY is going to trigger a salsa revolution amongst middle-aged couples, but there are worse reasons for it to happen. The film is also a sincere, moving step for Frost as a seriously actor. He's dabbled with it before, but with this work, he dives into the medium-deep end, with the promise of even better work to come. That is something to dance about.