Simon Pegg has a cameo in his buddy Nick Frost’s solo effort “Cuban Fury,” but the wide-eyed look of amazement he affects in it isn’t likely to be duplicated by anybody in the audience. Instead those ready to be pleased by comfortable predictability will probably smile in contentment as the movie unfolds, while those looking for something more inventive may find it difficult not to stifle a yawn. The talented cast tries hard—too hard, in fact—to give the dance-based comedy some pizzazz, but even they can’t rescue what comes across in every sense as routine.
Frost, the big-boned member of the Pegg-Frost-Wright trio responsible for “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End,” plays chubby milquetoast Bruce Garrett, a drone in the employ of GFD Engineering, which specializes in heavy machinery. Bruce is a forlorn nebbish, constantly ragged on by his co-worker Drew (Chris O’Dowd) and palling around with his equally hapless friends Gary (Rory Kinnear) and Mickey (Tim Plester).
But he was not always that way: as a youngster (where the character is played by Ben Radcliffe), we’re shown in a prologue, he’d become a devotee of salsa dancing, and had paired up with his sister to win a slew of regional contests under the stern tutelage of their demanding coach Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane). But when he was thrashed by a bunch of bullies on his way to a big contest, he’d abruptly sworn off dancing for good, disappointing Parfitt to no end.
Bruce’s long-ago passion is reawakened by the arrival of a new boss—Julia (Rashida Jones), an American with whom he’s immediately smitten (after the mandated “cute” meeting, of course). Unfortunately, so is Drew, who brags to Garrett incessantly about how he intends to have his way with her. On the other hand, Bruce has one ace in his hand after he discovers, purely by accident, that Julia has a love of salsa dancing too. That sends him searching him searching for Parfitt for some retraining that, of course, will lead him to rediscover his old self-confidence and in the process find true love.
There’s nothing really bad about “Cuban Fury”—it’s reminiscent of the sort of thing John Candy might have made years back. But compared to outstanding dance comedies like “Strictly Ballroom” (1992) or “Shall We Dance?” (the 1996 Japanese original, of course, not the tepid American remake), it never really takes flight. Part of the problem lies in the bland characterization of Garrett, which doesn’t give Frost much to deal with, and in the equally pallid one of Julia, which gives Jones little opportunity to shine. But a more serious drawback is the excessive reliance on O’Dowd’s Drew, a singularly unfunny and frequently repugnant fellow who’s more creepy than funny. The comedic dance-off between them, which is meant to be the movie’s comic highlight, comes off as more peculiar than amusing, especially since despite the obvious physical effort, Frost never convinces as a master dancer. And James Griffiths’ direction is pretty lackadaisical, apart from the episodes in which Richard Marcel’s choreography takes center stage and editors Jonathan Amos and Chris Dickens can juice up the footage in exuberant montages.
There’s compensation, of course, in the music, with lots of Tito Puente numbers, and the dance-contest footage of the final reel, where Bruce and his sister Sam (Olivia Colman) take to the floor before Julia shows up to serve as his partner and there are plenty of other fine hoofers surrounding them. McShane trots out his grumpy routine to good effect, and Kayvan Novak certainly brings a lot of energy to Bejan, the flamboyant fellow student in Parfitt’s class who befriends Garrett and gives him some fashion tops. Kinnear, moreover, might be initially annoying, but he has a nice moment of appreciation for Bruce’s talents in the end.
But these are incidental pleasures in a film that hasn’t much going for it at the center. Though it’s certainly colorful—thanks to Dick Lunn’s production design, Rosa Dias’ costumes and Dick Pope’s cinematography—in the end this “Fury” turns out to be too mild for its own good, a formulaic ‘worm turns’ story that doesn’t take full advantage of its dance milieu.