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British actor Nick Frost, best known for his ensemble work in the Simon Pegg comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, shimmies into the rom-com spotlight for Cuban Fury, a by-the-numbers drab-to-fab story. As a lonely thirtysomething who rediscovers his passion for salsa dancing in order to win the heart of his lovely boss, Frost is a likable lead and an easy rooting interest. But his affability isn’t enough to give this silly-sweet feature the edge and dimension that would make it a memorable contribution to the subgenre epitomized by The Full Monty — comedies in which middle-aged, unassuming Brits discover their inner showman.
The setup finds Frost’s Bruce Garrett 25 years after a traumatic bullying incident ended his presumed meteoric rise through the UK Junior Salsa Championships. Out of practice and out of shape, he lives a dull suburban existence, working for a heavy-equipment manufacturing company and trading weekly reports of romantic inactivity with his golf buddies.
He perks up at the arrival of Julia (Rashida Jones), a new boss from the States, as does his skeevy office mate and tormentor, Drew (Chris O’Dowd). After not one but two meet-cute collisions with Julia, Bruce discovers that she’s a salsa buff and decides it’s time to dust off his sequined shirts and get back on the dance floor — or at least to a class in the basics. With some tough love from his onetime mentor (Ian McShane), effusive support from a fellow dance student (the scene-stealing Kayvan Novak, of Four Lions) and loving encouragement from his bartender sister (Olivia Colman, effervescent), Bruce prepares to sweep Julia off her salsa-happy feet.
The screenplay, credited to Jon Brown and based on an idea by Frost, takes the implausible yet movie-familiar circumstances through some plodding establishing scenes. The two key female roles — Jones’ and Colman’s — are sorely underwritten, as is the central romance. By contrast, Rory Kinnear’s relatively small part as Bruce’s married friend gets an unexpected emotional arc, which he communicates affectingly and with no fuss.
The slow-building comic elements gather some steam as the film moves toward the inevitable dance contest. The best bits include a couple of ace line deliveries by Novak and a dance-off showdown between Bruce and Drew in a parking structure (complete with fleeting cameo by Pegg). Switching off his accustomed sensitive-guy mode, O’Dowd clearly has fun playing a slimeball.
Jones, in a glamorized, more confident version of her charming Parks and Recreation persona, never convinces as a corporate hotshot, but more than suffices as someone who would reignite the dormant spark in a man who has given up. Frost creates a thoroughly sympathetic fellow, and the polarity between him and O’Dowd ups the stakes as the perennially self-deprecating Bruce adopts a boldness that includes being kind to himself.
Director James Griffiths, who has worked mainly in episodic TV, puts no cinematic stamp on the material. Dance scenes involving the stars are conspicuously edited in a way that Fred Astaire would disdain. The soundtrack’s salsa numbers infuse the final scenes with an undeniable infectious energy, yet had the story unfolded in a less flat-footed way, the glow from its crowd-pleaser of a climax might not fade so fast.
Opens: Friday, April 11 (Entertainment One Films)
Production: A StudioCanal/Film4/BFI presentation of a Big Talk Pictures production
Cast: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Olivia Colman, Kayvan Novak, Rory Kinnear, Alexandra Roach, Ian McShane
Director: James Griffiths
Screenwriter: Jon Brown
Based on an original idea by Nick Frost
Producers: Nira Park, James Biddle
Executive producers: Matthew Justice, Nick Frost, Rachael Prior, Olivier Courson, Jenny Borgars, Danny Perkins, Tessa Ross
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Dick Lunn
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Costume designer: Rosa Dias
Editors: Jonathan Amos, Chris Dickens
Rated R; 98 minutes
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