Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)Rated PG-13 for sensuality.
Starring Diego Luna, Romola Garai, Sela Ward, John Slattery, Jonathan Jackson, January Jones, Mika Boorem, René Lavan, Mya Harrison.
LVJeff's Rating: 5/10
Photo ©Lions Gate Films and Miramax Films. All rights reserved.
Danced into a Corner
It's 1958. Unrest swells in Cuba, fomenting the fires of revolution. As Batista's power rapidly waned in the closing days of the year, the influence of national dissidents grew. Rebels gathered -- a political sea change was about to occur.
Can this be Dirty Dancing? Well, more precisely, it's the background for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, but it's indicative of what's wrong with the new movie's approach. The original Dirty Dancing was fluff -- entertaining fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Part of its success came from the film's dedication to its insular world of corny drama, existing in the shell of a coming-of-age story, liberated specifically when the music began and the bodies started to swing and sway. It knew what it was, and it was comfortable with itself.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, on the other hand, is too embarrassed to relegate itself solely to fluff, so it introduces an element of socio-political importance. Unfortunately, the element is exactly what the movie hoped it wouldn't be: disruptive. It's a pity, too -- for much of the movie, Havana Nights, a purported "re-imagining" of the original 1987 sleeper hit, appears cozy with its story of a young man and a naive teenage woman crossing class lines to create a connection through sensuous dancing. I would've gone along with this just fine -- unfortunately, the revolution gives the awkward effect of crashing the party.
Not that it was an especially lively party to begin with -- the movie has plenty of other problems, most of which have to do with pacing. It moves a little too fast, clocking in at a brisk 86 minutes. Early characters are introduced, but then conveniently disappear. The plot points inserted between the dancing scenes do their job and then quickly get out of the way. As a result, everything feels only lightly touched upon -- all the conflicts that arise seem rather tame, so the drama is half-hearted. The whole thing feels very much like a rush job -- it's in so much of a hurry, in fact, that even the dancing suffers, such as in the final contest, where the protagonists' main competitors are each given about two moves to do before the screen fades to the next couple.
Havana Nights finds its groove when the dancing works. The filmmakers were smart to give their version of dirty dancing a Latin flavor, contrasting it with the formal ballroom dancing enjoyed by the nation's rich American entrepreneurs and their families. They also tried something interesting by giving their female lead character, Katey (Romola Garai), a background in dance, so that her endeavors to learn "dirty" dancing are actually attempts at fusing the two styles instead of replacing one with the other. Garai makes the most of it -- she has an adorable onscreen presence that is equal parts dorky misfit and charming dancer, and it's her liveliness that gives the film the warmth that allows it to occasionally overcome its well-worn plot.
Not faring as well is leading man Diego Luna, who plays Javier. Although a good dancer, he looks like a kid. One can scarcely fault him for that, but his pairing with an effectively equal-sized partner suffers when one thinks back to the original's coupling of waifish Jennifer Grey and strong, masculine Patrick Swayze. When Katey tells Javier that he's not leading firmly enough, it's too easy to believe her (to make things worse, Swayze is actually in the new movie as a dance instructor, and when he dances with Garai, the contrast is stark).
Alas, were it only about the dancing -- and were all the dancing given its due screen time -- Havana Nights could have co-existed with its predecessor as a decent guilty pleasure. It has its moments, such as an intimate dance in the flickering light of a projector playing the film of another dance. That the moment gets interrupted is annoying, but it's only a sample of things to come. As it is, thanks to revolution-related turmoil, the final dance gets stopped abruptly with the force of an earthquake waking you up in the middle of the night. Denied the big finale like the one that so memorably closes the original movie, audiences are likely to leave the new film not having had the time of their lives, but a time they'll soon forget.
©Jeffrey Chen, Feb. 23, 2004