Nick Frost, the tubby sidekick to frequent onscreen partner Simon Pegg, sashays solo into the spotlight in the salsa-inflected British romantic comedy “Cuban Fury.” Big Talk, the production company behind all those Pegg-Frost pairings, hopes to advance its winning formula with an amiable tale of courage and redemption, featuring a lonely office drone daring to dream that his beautiful new boss (Rashida Jones) might rumba right into his arms. The local appeal of a cast that also includes Chris O’Dowd and Olivia Colman should see U.K. fans grooving to the pic’s tune, but overseas audiences may need some prodding onto the dance floor.
Bruce Garrett (Frost) was once a child Latin-dance star, but a traumatic bullying incident that occurred when he was 13, later referred to as “Sequingate,” saw him hang up his Cuban heels for good. Twenty-five years later, his only real passion is his job at GFD Engineering, a manufacturer of heavy machinery (“I LOVE MY LATHE,” announces his office coffee mug). A regular verbal punching bag for smug Alpha-male co-worker Drew (O’Dowd), he’s lost all confidence, at least when it comes to the opposite sex. Sympathy and encouragement arrive courtesy of his bartender sister, Sam (Colman), plus regular solace from his two best buds, the unhappily married Gary (Rory Kinnear, “Skyfall”) and the undateable Mickey (Tim Plester).
Not content with a single meet-cute, the screenplay by Jon Brown (various episodes of the youth-skewering Brit TV series “Misfits” and “Fresh Meat”) has Bruce literally collide with new sales chief Julia (Jones), then contrives to repeat the trick, with Julia knocking hapless Bruce off his bicycle. By this time he’s learned of her secret salsa fetish, and with Sam’s encouragement, he determines to rediscover the fleet feet of his early adolescence.
In the early going, O’Dowd’s unpleasant office lothario makes the strongest impression, his lascivious appreciation of Julia straying into the genuinely distressing (“I’m going to splash inside that like a milk truck hitting a wall”). The baton is passed to Bruce’s former dance instructor Ron (Ian McShane), now running a bar that hosts salsa classes in its shabby basement. But the film is well and truly stolen by a winning Kayvan Novak (“Four Lions”), who manages a wholly original spin on what might easily have been a generically camp character, fellow dance student Bejan. If “Cuban Fury” hits, it could do for Novak what “Notting Hill” did for Rhys Ifans and his graying, sagging underpants.
While the odd comic setpiece is fairly inspired, notably a dance-off between Bruce and Drew on top of a parking structure, too many of the scenes are merely plodding, and a few more zingers would certainly not have gone amiss. The reliably appealing Colman and Alexandra Roach (“One Chance”), as co-worker Helen, are both under-used in lightly conceived roles, and the similarly underwritten Julia requires every ounce of Jones’ sweet charisma. Kinnear makes the most of his regular-bloke part, and surprisingly contributes the film’s deftest emotional grace note.
Despite a reported many months of training, Frost never really convinces as a natural mover, and the film needs all the professional dancers it can muster to satisfy the potentially large Latin-dance-fan audience that may be snagged by grassroots marketing. Direction by feature debutant James Griffiths (TV’s “Episodes”) is determinedly non-attention-seeking.
With numerous scenes set in the dutifully dull offices of GFD, Frost’s homely apartment, pubs, dance classes, a golfing range and bowling alley, “Cuban Fury” hardly offers a cavalcade of eye candy, and it’s left to Rosa Dias’ costumes to do the visual heavy lifting. Bruce’s own redemptive arc is signaled by his progression from dowdy T-shirts (brown, urgh) to pink cotton, then black silk, and finally resplendent dark crimson with jet-black rhinestones for the climactic dance competition, plus splashes of hot pink, turquoise and yellow sported by fellow dancers. A regular succession of classic Latin cuts, notably by Tito Puente, comes courtesy of Big Talk’s regular music supervisor Nick Angel and special music consultant Gilles Peterson, a renowned London-based jazz DJ and record label owner.
Overall, it’s just enough to send the date-movie crowd home with a smile on their face and a tingle of joy in their heart, and as long as distribs can get audiences to sample Frost as a leading man, word should be suitably encouraging. The film’s Valentine’s Day release date in the U.K. won’t hurt in the slightest: It’s already grossed £966,000, or $1.6 million.