Attempting to show that no place is out of bounds as a setting for light teen romance, writer-director John Forte’s “Mad About Mambo” borrows every element of the standard Hollywood high school movie for a tale set in present-day Belfast, and sets back the cause of Irish cinema in the process. Never has ground zero of the Troubles appeared so free ‘n’ easy, with nearly all the rough edges of the actual place (Forte’s hometown) sanded away for a smooth entertainment. Despite details of Protestant-Catholic conflict and the game of soccer, this is fundamentally an American fantasy (partly funded by Gramercy and Phoenix Pictures) imported to the Emerald Isle, and it comes off as a third-generation photocopy. Poor B.O. for similar Yank offerings augurs badly for this wan effort.
“Felicity’s” Keri Russell, reportedly cast in the lead before her stint in the WB hit, comes off as too American for the central character, a spoiled teen driven to win the local samba competish. It isn’t only that Forte’s script obviously borrows comedic and class-conscious devices from a range of pics, including “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Dancing,” but story arc and sensibility are on par with the current, forgettable wave of teen confections.
Even more overtly and crudely than in many similar Hollywood pics, early scenes spell out the premise: Eager soccer player and high-schooler Danny (William Ash) wants to make it to the pro leagues — specifically, top squad Belfast United — and in the course of taking his game to the next level and improving his footwork, is inspired to learn Brazilian samba dancing.
Serious Danny is intro’d with his three fave lads, who according to formula dictates, are a bit loopy, especially Mickey (Maclean Stewart), who wants to be a fashion designer. Early attempts to learn samba at home provide easy comedy. Soon Danny takes the plunge and attends dance classes.
Top couple in class consists of Lucy (Russell) and her priggish beau, Oliver (Theo Fraser Steele), who wastes no time challenging Danny to a cross-town match with his school’s team. Danny, though, is paying more attention to pretty Lucy.
Danny accidentally trips Oliver during a match, setting off a string of implausible overreactions geared to provide plot complications. Thus, Lucy now considers Danny her enemy, his principal gives him a tongue-lashing, and he’s sent to the sidelines indefinitely. With such monumentally exaggerated problems, the sectarian strife in Danny’s West Belfast neighborhood seems minor indeed, and barely registers here.
A potentially interesting development, in which the traditionally Protestant Belfast United team has signed Brazilian (and Catholic) star Carlos (Daniel Caltagirone) and thereby offers hope to aspiring Catholic lads like Danny, is pursued only superficially. The issue would seem to present strong dramatic possibilities, and certainly a more interesting story than the one in pic’s foreground.
As the inevitable romance grows between Danny and Lucy and pushes pic into the fairy-tale arena, vet thesp Brian Cox provides some vitally needed texture as Lucy’s outgoing food market entrepreneur dad. Still, the plot restricts adult characters mainly to giving advice to Danny. The shamelessly sweet reunion of Danny and Lucy has thudding effect; it’s couched as a surprise but is woefully predictable.
Lacking the kind of fire and energy that the best youth movies demand, leads Ash and Russell display skills better tuned to the small screen. Other than Cox, supporting thesps fail to serve up sorely needed colorful moments. Tech support is functional but undistinguished, except for the fine work of choreographer Kim Blank.