After years of directing television episodes for comedies, including work on Episodes and Up All Night, director James Griffiths makes his film debut with Cuban Fury, a spicy comedy led by Nick Frost and a backing cast of other famous funny people. Similarly, the film is written by Jon Brown, whose resume was also previously film-free.
Bruce (Frost) and his sister Sam were an award-winning salsa duo in their youth, until a gang of young bullies vanquished Bruce’s love of dance and upbeat attitude. Many years later, adult Bruce falls for his new boss Julia (Rashida Jones), and when he realizes that her favorite hobby is his childhood pastime, he’s inspired to get back in the salsa game. Cue Bruce’s grizzled old dance instructor (Ian McShane), and the fire in his heart is re-ignited.
Of course, there’s a smug and handsome co-worker, Drew (Chris O’Dowd), also trying to win the heart of beautiful Julia. After all, she’s so pretty and so well-dressed. Seriously, Rashida’s Cuban Fury wardrobe is on point. But we know how this game ends up, right? Surely the frumpy but determined guy deserves to “win” the girl in the end? Cuban Fury isn’t even trying to hide its blatant “winning the beautiful but otherwise-not-entirely-noteworthy girl” formula, actually using variations of the word “win” multiple times in the dialogue.
Cuban Fury is definitely a passion project for Frost, on whose original concept the entire movie is based. It’s evident that plenty of work went into the film, especially into the dancing scenes. These actors clearly took more than a few salsa lessons to prepare themselves, and it pays off. Frost, Colman, Jones, and even O’Dowd, make choreographed dance numbers look easy. Only McShane apparently couldn’t be bothered to learn a few moves.
You’ve really gotta give Frost kudos, who is up there on screen, fearless, showcasing his not-so-Hollywood bod. The dance numbers are fast, and the nature of the scenes is usually based around competition — official or not. I don’t know much about salsa dancing, or dancing at all, but the actors are believable as salsa experts, seeming to move effortlessly among the actual professionals. Surely, this is due to a combination of both clever directing and hard work on the actors’ parts.
O’Dowd co-stars as Drew, Bruce’s colleague, frenemy, and nemesis in office romance. The character itself is pretty generic; he’s the hot, smarmy guy at work, who maneuvers himself into women’s lives with a smirk and well-fitted pants. Drew actually has a fair number of similarities to O’Dowd’s character Thomas-John in Girls, though Drew is much more manipulative. The Irish actor does what he can with the character, delivering some of the film’s best lines, despite Drew’s blandness. The climactic scene between Drew and Julia comes to mind as this writer’s favorite scene.
Other supporting actors add significantly to the film, such as Colman portraying bartending sister Sam, provoking always disastrous yet ever-adorable sibling shots, and more importantly, adding an honest female perspective to the plot. However – don’t be fooled – the award for show-stealing supporter goes to Kayvan Novak as Bejan, a flamboyant dancer who is befriended by Drew at a dance lesson, forever craving specifically flat Fanta, teaching Drew about breathable fabrics, and making inappropriately-timed jokes about grenades. Bejan is admittedly one-note, but Novak sells the character aggressively and definitely incites laughter.
McShane’s character is one of the weakest, highlighted by the fact that the movie too often tries to switch to a serious – seriously boring, that is – note. Just when you think you’re enjoying this comedy, there’s a melodramatic scene in between Frost and McShane that’s just honestly difficult to care about. The untimely pacing in Brown’s screenplay kills the mood, in a comedy that’s already kind of grasping at straws to begin with for its laughs. Could this awkwardness be in part inspired by Brown’s television work?
Unfortunately for Cuban Fury, there’s only a handful of laugh-out-loud moments in the film, usually thanks to a line or two from O’Dowd or Novak. The movie is hard to pick apart specifically but is generally, overall – just not that funny, and with Frost’s involvement, it’s almost impossible not to compare Cuban Fury to flat-out comedy classics, such as Shaun of the Dead. This in mind, Cuban Fury is a major letdown.
The Upside: Actually impressive dance numbers; supporting cast make mostly un-funny characters pretty funny; a certain cameo
The Downside: Attempts at emotional moments are total mood-killers in a movie that’s already not that funny; salsa dancing is unusual but still can’t cover up a hackneyed plot
On the Side: The original title for this film was Salsa Fury; no, the word “Cuban” is never mentioned in the film.