The couch potato sits before the telly, opens a 4-pack of yogurt and scoops up the creamy contents, one heaping spoonful at a time. The hapless nebbish at the heart – no, no, corazón – of the underdog rom-com Cuban Fury leads a perfectly average, not uncomfortable life. OK, so he has (more than) a few extra pounds, has to deal with an alpha-male workmate whose very tactile teasing could be construed as harassment and, at 35, finds himself chronically single. But he genuinely seems to like his job as an engineer, and still finds time to whack some golf balls with his nerdy buddies.
So why does Bruce Garrett still feel unfulfilled? Decades before becoming a moderately successful career man, Bruce, played with guarded vulnerability by Nick Frost, used to dance. He used to dance really well. How well, you ask? As a 13-year-old he racked up trophy after trophy with his partner in crime, his sister Sam. “He’s got el corazón,” marveled his trainer, Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane, a long way from Deadwood). And then “Sequingate” happened. On his way to a major tournament, Bruce (played as a teen by Ben Radcliffe) was beaten up by a group of punks. And the parallels between what the 13-year-old, who is straight, went through because of the way he looked in his gaudy ballroom apparel and gay kids his age are unmistakable.
It’s a little disappointing, then, that the movie that follows is considerably less progressive than this intriguing setup would suggest. Cuban Fury has its heart in the right place, but the sexual politics on display are, like its many references to 80s movies, stuck in the past. The arrival of Julia (Rashida Jones), Bruce’s new American boss, awakens long-dormant impulses in the office drone. For douchebag workmate Drew (Chris O’Dowd, dependably hilarious), the new hire is an opportunity to make another conquest. Ah, but as Chris finds out, on her spare time Julia likes to salsa. (It appears that, in England, that word is used more as a verb than a noun.) The game for Julia’s affections is afoot.
Bruce is hesitant to pick up where he left off more than two decades ago. Snap out of it, says Sam (played as an adult by a sassy Olivia Colman), who’s definitely been serving drinks for a living far too long, but hey, it pays the bills. So off he goes to locate Parfitt, see if he will once again take him under his wing. And all the pieces in the formulaic plot cooked up by Frost himself fall into place with clockwork efficiency. One wishes the screenplay Jon Brown wrote out of Frost’s idea veered from convention a little bit more. And James Griffiths’ workmanlike direction channels Strictly Ballroom-era Baz Luhrmann by way of Edgar Wright, but without establishing a kooky personality of its own that would match this amiable go-for-broke tale step by step.
Of all the stereotypes Cuban Fury parades before us – seemingly unobtainable beauty, gruff teacher/master/coach, hissable, morally bankrupt villain – none is more problematic than Bejan (Four Lions‘ Kayvan Novak), the in-your-face-queer dance student of Middle Eastern descent that, curiously enough, doesn’t seem to have a sex life, but nevertheless serves as a source of sitcom-level laughs. In a scene straight out of an 80s sex farce, Bruce’s bestie Gary (Rory Cochrane) gets the wrong idea when he catches Bejan at Bruce’s bachelor pad while Bruce is walking around in a bathrobe. Hardee har har. It’s a testament to Cochrane’s skill that he makes sure to convey his character’s dismay stems, not over the notion his best friend might be exploring uncharted sexual waters, but because he kept that side of his life hidden from him. That still doesn’t stop the scene from leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
Cuban Fury is worthwhile date-night fodder, but not because it serves up an engaging romance. The Bruce/Julia/Drew plotline is actually a bit of a wash, a spirited dance-off between Frost and O’Dowd at a parking garage notwithstanding. The film thrives whenever it shows Bruce struggling to break through the self-imposed walls he has erected for himself. The movie’s high point has nothing to do with his lovelorn yearning: It happens near the end, when Bruce and Sam take to the dance floor against professional salsa dancers, and the moment is so joyous that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief, however fleetingly. This film marks the first lead role for Frost, heretofore relegated to sidekick/comic relief roles, and it bodes well for future opportunities for the plus-sized comedian. He just needs to lay off the prehistoric gay-panic jokes next time.
Bruce Garrett is not the only dreamer reaching for the stars at the movies this week. The twenty-something ray of sunshine headlining the French Canadian import Gabrielle can’t wait to take the stage alongside her main squeeze Martin (Alexandre Landry) and venerated singer Robert Charlebois at a Montreal music festival. To get there, however, she needs to overcome several obstacles: her older sister Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) appears to be leaning towards moving to India to be with her boyfriend; her mother (Isabelle Vincent) remains emotionally at arm’s length, and Martin’s mother (Marie Gignac) seems determined to keep them apart. She’s an adult, dammit, and quite willing to make her own decisions, thank you very much. So why does the universe appear to be conspiring against her?
Gabrielle, you see, was born with Williams syndrome, and the choir in which she sings is comprised of similarly challenged people, including Martin, who’s beginning to make some serious moves. It feels perfectly natural to want to have sex with her boyfriend, but the couple’s loved ones aren’t too sure they’re emotionally equipped to handle the potential consequences. The film’s director, Louise Archambault, begs to differ. As played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who, like her onscreen counterpart, lives with Williams syndrome, Gabrielle is independent-minded, and also quite stubborn about her certainty that she can live without constant supervision. Even when the dysfunctional domestic dynamics take Gabrielle to more familiar territory, Archambault’s naturalistic direction deftly navigates material that could have come across as didactic and overly earnest in lesser hands. Parts of Gabrielle play like the movie the well-reviewed indie darling Short Term 12, which dealt with children in the foster-care system, should have been. Bonus points for introducing U.S. audiences to cutie patootie Vincent Guillaume-Otis – think of a cross between Diego Luna and James McAvoy – always engaging as Gabrielle’s choir director.
If Cuban Fury and Gabrielle feel too happy-go-lucky for your taste, check out Under the Skin, if you dare. The oddest, most bizarre movie to hit multiplexes since Mulholland Drive, this atmospheric sci-fi spellbinder stars Scarlett Johansson as a mystery woman driving the streets of Scotland searching for young male drifters. Is she a nymphomaniac? Is her insatiable quest for man meat just for kicks? Whatever her motives, she lures her prey to a dilapidated house, performs a sensual striptease as the men keep marching forward, forward, forward towards the seductress, into the darkness. And then … things get really strange.
Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) doles out answers gradually, much like Johansson’s skin-bearing. (She bares all, but it’s not that kind of movie. You are warned.) Viewers expecting a more conventional genre piece will be left scratching their heads, though I think we can all agree Mica Levi’s unsettling music score is pitch perfect. Part of me actually wishes Glazer clarified some of this femme fatale’s motivations, particularly in the third act, which could have been tighter. But if you’re willing to take the plunge, Under the Skin delivers the pleasures of the unexpected. If the movie’s occasionally difficult to decipher, it’s even harder to shake off.
Under the Skin begins peeling off its layers April 18 at various area theaters, including AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach and the Classic Gateway Theatre. Look for it later this spring at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. That same day, Gabrielle seizes the day at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and Cuban Fury shakes a leg at AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place and Cobb Hialeah Grand.