The Time of My Life?

havana

I laughed until tears streamed from the corners of my eyes at Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and although that can’t be the desired reaction from the filmmakers’ standpoint, I emerged from this movie feeling so “up” that I might have spent the afternoon at a spa. My facial muscles alone found the workout entirely rejuvenating.

Mere quotations likely won’t capture the charm, the flavor, of such priceless dialogue as, “I’m so happy I can see all this with you,” spoken by the film’s 18-year-old heroine Katey (Romola Garai) after her dance partner Javier (Diego Luna) has deflowered her on the beach. Or, when the lovers say goodbye, the young woman protests, “I’m taking you with me,” and her Cuban honey, hand over his heart, replies: “I’m keeping you here.” And after Batista’s departure (this recasting of the 1987 hit takes place on the eve of Castro’s rise to power) an American mother and daughter have a giggle-inducing revelation while one combs the other’s hair: “You can hide under the bed, or you can work through the knots.”

Still, as fluff goes, D2: Havana Nights reaches requisite levels of intoxication often enough. The colors, the mood, the recreation of late ‘50s Cuba, the contrast between stiff as starch conformist high-whites and the picturesque revolutionaries marching to the beat of a different conga drummer—all of that hits the mark. Until D2’s convulsive final scenes, so do the lead performances by Garai and Luna. More than just a pretty face, the British-born Garai conveys a realistic sense of discovery as a stranger in a strange land; she has a remarkable moment walking into a country club dance—all the fine young imperialists are waiting for her—and she panics, suddenly insecure in the form-fitting red dress she borrowed from her housekeeper. She looks great, only she doesn’t know it.

Luna, with a downward puckered mouth and skinny torso, seems almost a different animal from his pampered hooligan in the cynical, vulgar mess Y Tu Mamá También. The sense of playfulness he projects here has an appealing innocence, and he carries it a surprisingly long way.

Of the dance sequences, two in particular stand out. First, there’s an extended unbilled cameo by Patrick Swayze as a dance instructor at a posh hotel where the Americans segregate themselves from the natives. He offers Katey a lesson. Only a minute or two into this, I forgot I was watching a movie. Maybe it’s the pride that an old pro like Swayze takes in his work; I was so lost in pleasure that some time went by before the spell broke. In the second, Katey and Javier watch home movie footage of her parents projected onto a billowy, diaphanous curtain in the garage where Javier repaints stolen cars. Katey’s mother and father were once passionate ballroom dancers before settling in as a couple of squares, and there’s a breathtakingly sensuous juxtaposition of their silvery images against the corporeal forms of the young dancers who move in front of the screen. The director Guy Ferland allows this scene to dribble away whereas it ought to have faded evanescently. He foolishly, too, strives to capture the political tumult of the movie’s chosen era. That is where the dancer stumbles and the rest of us chortle. – NPT

February 2004

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