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The Lost City

(2006) ** 1/2 R
144 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Andy Garcia. Cast: Steven Bauer, Richard Bradford, Nestor Carbonell, Lorena Feijoo, Andy Garcia.

The Lost City is a lot of things, but what it's not is incisive. Andy Garcia's sixteen-years-in-the-making film sometimes plays like Godfather-light, teasing political history but engaging more in family drama. It's part musical, and part Casblancan romance, with a dash of satirical absurdism. In its final moments, well past the two-hour mark, The Lost City becomes a bittersweet serenade to Cuba or, from a less charitable viewpoint, spills over into vanity-project over-indulgence.

Though The Lost City doesn't live up to its ambitions, the effort is noble. Garcia and his esteemed screenwriter G. Cabrera Infante (the late novelist of Les Tigers Tristes) take their film as an opportunity to touch on all that is their Cuba: music, love, and intellect. Late-fifties Havana wriggles under the exploitation of Fulgencio Batista, but for politically neutral Fico Fellove (Garcia), all that matters is the continued prosperity of "El Tropico," the Tropicana-esque nightclub where a madly grinning emcee (Tony Plana) introduces brilliant dancers and musicians, like Beny Moré.

The thinning elder generation, represented by paterfamilias Federico (Tomas Milian), a University of Havana professor, and his brother Donoso (Richard Bradford) try to instill democratc values, but Fico's younger brothers (Nestor Carbonell and Enrique Murciano) are furtively embroiled in the impending revolution of two well-armed heels: Che Guevara and new-boss Fidel Castro. As the conflict tears the family apart, the once-all-important family dinner table displays ever more empty chairs.

If that sort of simple, unpretentious touch finds The Lost City at its best, Infante's over-reaching dialogue evidently has lost something in the translation. Known for his sharp wordplay, cultured metaphors, and literary allusions, Infante here crafts dialogue that takes on an overly indicative quality lacking in either sociopolitical depth or interpersonal insight. Infante represents his own point of view in the form of "The Writer" (Bill Murray), Fico's wisecracking right-hand Fool, but the character's absurdist interjections seem to come from a different—and more intriguingly idiosyncratic—film and thus sit uncomfortably alongside old-fashioned romantic corn.

For Fico has a smoldering interest in his brother's woman, Aurora (Inés Sastre). When mutual passion eventually surfaces, Garcia pauses repeatedly for redundant love montages, before Aurora baffingly abandons her sense of familial loyalty for a transparently exploitative gig as a Castro-upheld "Widow of the Revolution." Garcia and Infante never find the proper balance of character and allocation of screen time to do more than sketch the supporting characters (Dustin Hoffman's two scenes as Meyer Lansky serve mostly as historical-footnote flavor and marketing power for the film), and yet they remain somehow more compelling than Garcia's central passive resister.

Nevertheless, Garcia does sterling work in front of and behind the camera; the musically minded actor-director also supervises the soundtrack and pens several numbers. Filmed in the Dominican Republic on a tight schedule and miraculous budget, The Lost City is a handsome and poignantly nostalgic portrait of late-'50s, early '60s Cuba, but Garcia's awkward climactic speech says everything about his blinding passion for his subject: "I don't have a loyalty to a lost cause, but I do have a loyalty to a lost city. And that's my cause and my curse."

[For Groucho's interview with Andy Garcia, click here.]

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