Nick Frost is best known as second banana to Simon Pegg in comedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End. Now he is looking to step out of Pegg's shadow with Cuban Fury, a comedy that puts Frost in the spotlight and sets the stage for him to dazzle. Though Frost does prove a charming and surprisingly fleet-footed leading man, this lovable loser tale makes some unfortunate missteps.
Based on a concept by Frost and directed by James Griffiths, Cuban Fury has him playing Bruce Garrett, a meek pencil pusher who is endlessly bullied by co-workers, friends and strangers because he is fat and timid. But he wasn't always this way. As a child, Bruce was a fiery salsa prodigy with flashy shirts, a wall of trophies, and a resounding faith in himself. That was until a cruel pack of brats beat him up and made him eat the sequins off his silk shirt. However, his meet-cute with Julia (Rashida Jones) a pretty American who loves salsa, makes Bruce realize the fire inside him hasn't died. He'll need to reconnect with it--as well as his old salsa instructor (an under-utilized Ian McShane)--to win the girl away from his office frenemy, Drew (Chris O'Dowd).
For years Frost has made a consummate sidekick, playing likeable goofballs who help make the hero's flaws seem less severe by comparison. Here he gives a subtler performance than usual, but it's still one filled with fun and some well-placed slapstick. With Jones he shares an easy chemistry that makes them a believable could-be couple. For her part, Jones is a delight as the fawned-over Julia. Sadly, she's offered few jokes of her own as the script by Jon Brown seems to forget that love interests can do more than be cute and friendly.
O'Dowd positively towers over his co-stars while swaggering about as the self-proclaimed ladies man and Bruce's rival for Julia's affections. Be it delivering withering insults, dancing like a maniac, or wallowing in his own sleaze, O'Dowd gives his all.
Yet, he's woefully miscast.
Clearly, Drew is meant to be Bruce's opposite: extroverted, mean and devastatingly handsome versus shy, kind and tubby. But for all his dick moves and mocking, O'Dowd is not believable in this part, mainly because of his looks. Yes, he's a good-looking guy. But he's not so good looking that the audience or Bruce should assume he's fated to be with the endlessly lovely Julia. Someone like James Marsden would make sense in this role; O'Dowd is a jarring pick for it. Despite his best efforts, it never really gels.
Miscasting aside, the three leads share a playful energy that makes the movie fun and buoyant. But its construction is clunky. For one thing, Cuban Fury is bogged down by too many characters. Filling out the supporting cast are McShane, Alexandra Roach, Olivia Colman, Rory Kinnear and Kayvan Novak. They play a mix of friends and family, some supportive of his desire to return to dance, others suspicious. By while each adds some zing and laughs to the film, none are offered much screen time to really shine. So the story becomes cluttered with stereotypes (gay angel, bored married friend, surly mentor) and relationship snarls that could have been easily smoothed by combining a few of these characters.
But the biggest flaw is Griffiths' execution of the big dance sequences. At its core, Cuban Fury depends on Frost convincing us he can really dance. We're introduced to the typical training montage setup of him re-learning the steps. Then comes the finale, where he finally gets to strut his stuff in a competition before his former instructor and his crush. Griffiths bungles this defining moment with too many cuts. Dance numbers are always most impressive in long takes that show off the performers’ skills by not needing to cut away. Maybe Frost really can dance, but the quick cuts--that seem mainly meant to cut around body doubles for his dance partners--detract from his moment. In short, it's a bit bumbling, but pleasant.
Despite its missteps, Cuban Fury is entertaining, warmly funny and deeply sweet. It may not prove to be enough to launch Frost as a leading man, but it certainly shows he's got the chops for it.