Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

(2004) ** Pg-13
86 min. Lions Gate. Director: Guy Ferland. Cast: Diego Luna, Romola Garai, Sela Ward, John Slattery, Jonathan Jackson.

If you want a good chuckle, sneak into a theatre showing the new Dirty Dancing movie in time to catch the opening credit. After a teaser which establishes (through dingbatted narration) the middle-class, white-bread existence of poor little rich girl Katey Miller (Romola Garai), up comes the title "Dirty Dancing," then the subtitle "HAVANA NIGHTS," then the brilliantly funny appellation "BASED ON TRUE EVENTS." Oh, man, I'm still slapping my knee over that one.

I suppose the filmmakers figured they earned that credit because Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is one of those "set against a backdrop of" movies. This "reimagining" of the 1987 Patrick Swayze-Jennifer Grey pop classic is set against the backdrop of pre-revolution Cuba, in 1958, where Katey slowly dirty dances away from her imperialist American parents and peers at the swanky Oceana Hotel. But I can't improve on the purple prose of the press release: "Katey finds herself drawn instead to the proud, purposeful Javier (Diego Luna), a waiter who also happens to be a brilliant dancer. Determined to learn the slinky, spectacular moves that Javier seems to know in his bones, Katey persuades him to partner with her in a prestigious national dance competition...

"...They meet at the steamy nightclub La Rosa Negra, where only the locals go and where the dancing is hotter than the temperature outside. Some days, they practice on the sand of an out-of-the-way beach, aligning their bodies in a sensual harmony that mirrors the growing passion between them. As the night of the contest finally arrives, Katey and Javier are ready to take their place as a couple on the dance floor - unaware that the country club, and the streets of Havana itself, are about to erupt in revolutionary violence."

Right. Plus a couple of crisp scenes with a grinning Swayze as a dancing instructor/muse who must teach Katey to overcome her fear of sexual release. At the end of the second scene, Swayze tells Garai, "The floor is yours" and sweeps away. Wow, the torch has been passed. Of course, the thrust (ahem) of the story is that the lily-white Katey shouldn't be seen with the Cuban Javier, much less dirty dancing with him. This Juliet also has a Paris (Jonathan Jackson's James Phelps), who--wait, might he be a nice guy? No, sorry, he's a burgeoning date rapist. When Katey's Mom (Sela Ward) says, "I thought you liked him," Katey responds, "No, you liked him, because he fits into your perfect country-club world!" I wonder which one of the eight credited screenwriters (including including Oscar-winner Ron Bass) came up with that one.

If you're willing to forgive a great deal, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights makes a pretty hot date movie (though guys who don't like to dance might think twice about inviting the pressure on themselves). Garai (Nicholas Nickleby) is likeable enough and open to self-deprecating humor, and the waifish Luna (Y tu Mamá También) holds up his end of the picture with charm and chivalry. I presume they can also dance pretty well, but who can tell? Though vigorous cutting adds humor to the first-round dance contest, its pervasive fragmentation robs the continuity we should be able to expect from a dance movie. If they can really dance, why won't director Guy Ferland let a shot run longer than three seconds? At least choreographer JoAnn Jansen's moves look hot, but given the restless editing, the actors might as well be "Vogue"-ing as "dirty dancing." (In fact, we probably see Ward and screen husband John Slattery--who both seem to be having a pretty good time slumming here--cut a more extended rug than the leads.)

As for the film's politics, they're laughably simplistic, but the movie is defined instead by its soft-glow photography, the implicit, budding sexuality of its hothouse affair (which implodes implausibly in the accelerated resolution), and of course, the dirty dancing. When the Cubano band at La Rosa Negra anachronistically chants "Represent, represent...Cuba!" all hope of verisimilitude goes out the window.

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