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‘Cuban Fury’ missing spice, Nick Frost doesn’t disappoint

When conjuring up the image of a salsa dancer, a pale, overweight British man is the least likely candidate to come to mind. Yet Nick Frost is out to change all of that with his newest starring vehicle, Cuban Fury, which — despite its lackluster script and cases of poor character development — hip shakes and quick steps into the heart with its earnestness, originality and charming cast.

The story is certainly a novel one, even if the same can’t be said for the script itself. The film begins in 1987 when young salsa star Bruce Garrett (Frost) is involved in a merciless bullying incident before a huge U.K. salsa competition and vows to give up dancing forever. About 20 years later, adult Bruce is overweight, under-confident and lacking any kind of meaning in his life. This all changes when he meets Julia (Rashida Jones), his new American boss who is, of course, quite fond of salsa dancing. In an effort to reclaim a lost passion for life — and to reclaim Julia from his insufferably disgusting co-worker, Drew (Chris O’Dowd) — Bruce has to rediscover his love for salsa.

If you were to judge Cuban Fury solely from its script, you would probably cramp up from all of the eye-rolling dialogue and abandon the story altogether by the time Frost’s character assigns a numerical value to himself and to Jones’ Julia. (He’s a two, and she’s a 10, in case you were wondering.) Jon Brown, who penned the script, has written for a few acclaimed British TV series, including Misfits and Fresh Meat. But this is his first movie and it certainly shows. Brown’s résumé shows promise, and here’s hoping he can work out the kinks in time for his next project.

Certain characters are similarly clichéd, even venturing into the realm of cartoonish. O’Dowd’s Drew, for example, is so impossibly one-dimensional that it’s remarkable he doesn’t disappear altogether every time he turns to the side. He is repulsive in every respect of the word, perhaps in an effort to sell the lanky, kind-eyed Irishman as a villain in the first place. He spews a non-stop diatribe of fat jokes and obscene sexual references, which are exhaustingly unfunny at best.

Beyond this character development, or blatant lack thereof in Jones’ case, it’s the performances that really sell this film and make it bearable, even enjoyable, for its 98-minute runtime. Bridesmaids good-guy O’Dowd clearly relishes playing the slime ball for once, putting all he has into every crude joke and accompanying hip thrust, and his palpable enjoyment in stepping into such a role is contagious.

Frost injects a similar level of enthusiasm into playing Bruce, eliminating any traces of doubt that he can lead a film when separated from the Cornetto Trilogy gang of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. (Although Pegg does make a hilarious, blink-and-you’ll-miss it appearance in Fury, to be fair.) The nature of the role requires that Frost be schlubby, but he expertly walks the line between loser and sad loser. When he opens and eats an entire four-pack of yogurt in one sitting, for example, it’s amusing rather than depressing.

Beyond these high-billed names, those on the sidelines are the characters that really give Fury depth. Olivia Colman is wonderfully endearing as Bruce’s sister and dance partner, Sam, who works in a tropical-themed bar, mixing drinks in coconuts and doling out life advice to her hapless brother. Kayvan Novak plays the unfortunately small supporting role of the delightfully campy Bejan, Bruce’s salsa classmate and vehement weirdo who spouts nonsensical phrases in his native tongue and carries around a homemade jug of “still” Fanta — which he insists that everyone drink straight from the bottle. Even Alexandra Roach in the small role of Bruce’s unenthusiastic secretary, Helen, is a welcome addition for the impressive amount of sardonic disinterest she’s able to convey in her relatively short time onscreen.

Most important in a film about salsa, however, is the actual dancing itself. And in that respect, Cuban Fury does not disappoint. The film is peppered with amateurs and hardened salsa pros alike, each putting all that they have into every twist and turn. The heavier Frost, who occupies the majority of the film’s dance scenes, is unbelievably nimble on his feet, whirling and twirling through the film with professional skill. In one of the standout moments, romantic rivals Bruce and Drew make the ridiculous suggestion of dancing for Julia’s heart. But the absurdity doesn’t matter when they launch into an intense dance sequence that would make both the Sharks and the Jets quake with jealous dance rage.

With its fast-moving feet, blaring salsa soundtrack and bedazzled silk shirts, it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of Cuban Fury. And, on its surface, the film has all the right ingredients to make it a feel good hit: romantic rivalry, dance numbers, humor and even the most adorably awkward meet cute since Woody Allen’s and Diane Keaton’s jittery verbal spar in the tennis court clubhouse. Never mind that Cuban Fury does little beyond that surface. Like the transitory moments of a salsa, the film is entertaining and exciting watch, but once it’s gone, there’s only an empty dance floor.

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