Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

"This is Cuba. Nobody cares what you do here.

That Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is a tolerable 90 minutes is a miracle. That it is a good film is just absurd. Guy Ferland’s “reimagining” of the classic 1987 train wreck was poised to become the laughingstock of the year, the name to be dropped when conversation rolled around to the grandest cinematic disasters. But what we have here is a movie that ignores those expectations, surpasses its inspiration in every way, and even provides one genuine surprise. Unlike Emile Ardolino’s original, Havana Nights is actually about something. It’s not about much, and it’s certainly not about anything original, but something is something.

Stepping into Jennifer Grey’s dancing shoes is Romola Garai, a young Brit you may remember from Nicholas Nickleby or I Capture the Castle. Her Katey Miller moves to Cuba with her parents in 1958 and is immediately pressured to join Havana high society. This consists mostly of other country club rich kids, though ones much sleazier than the shy and studious Katey. Her parental units want to set her up with James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson), the sleaziest of the sleazy and the son of her dad’s boss, but she has someone else in mind: a local hotel poolboy named Javier (Diego Luna). Of course having people see Katey with a local would have damaging implications for her father’s career, but who cares? She saw him dancing in the streets.

There are complications to the forbidden romance plot, of course. Katey inadvertently gets Javier fired, and what better way to help him get on his feet than to enter a dance contest! Of course, while Katey is fairly well-schooled in the ways of traditional ballroom dancing — her parents are accomplished performers who abandoned their dream in favor of a more placid and reliable career — she doesn’t have the first clue when it comes to the hot and sweaty Cuban brand of rhythmic writhing.

The mechanics of Havana Nights are unlikely to inspire any budding filmmakers — I wouldn’t mind, for example, if all future screenwriters were banned from pretending that “Feel the music” is a meaningful phrase. In a stunningly bizarre turn of events, it isn’t the young Diego Luna who catalyzes the protagonist’s dance-related breakthrough midway through the film, but the very, very old Patrick Swayze, coming back for a near-cameo role. He looks so seedy that I was expecting him to molest Romola Garai any moment.

There are further problems. The dancing, obviously billed as the main attraction, is mishandled. Luna and Garai’s moves are fine, mind you; the movie just abuses them. The dance scenes are not only overedited (that was more or less to be expected), but also extremely short — there is a lot of montage, but just one uninterrupted sequence of reasonable length. I’ve never been able to dance and have little desire to learn, but I can appreciate the effect that a dynamically filmed display can have on an audience, and Havana Nights mostly wastes that potential.

But the movie made me smile. The stars have genuine charm, and the script is smarter about their relationship than one might expect, not harping on the class conflict aspect until other characters force the issue. Mostly, these are just two people who meet and like each other. Though Romola Garai may provide the worst voice-over narration imaginable (she speaks as if delivering a report to her seventh-grade class), I really like her. I think she will have a career.

The Cuban Revolution is glossed over, sure, but at least it’s dealt with, which is more than you had any right to expect. In fact, the climax has a fairly impressive twist, as the movie abandons its trajectory and goes off in a different direction. If there’s one thing I didn’t expect, it was for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights to surprise me.

-- Eugene Novikov

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