This is not a good movie. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is, in fact, a bad movie. The script bleeds one cliché after another, the female lead can't fire up the heat necessary for her role, and the plot resolves nearly every conflict it introduces within minutes. Worse, even as the movie wants to mock American racism and sexual repression, it creates a patronizing environment, Disney-fying a Puerto Rican landscape in the attempt to create a bygone era in Cuba, where daily life is portrayed as a continuous dance party. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights even begins and ends with bookended voiceovers, those exhausted workhorses, here written poorly and meant to control our experience of the film, lest we hazard some ideas of our own. (Of course, the script's clichés are so tight that there's hardly room to insert free thinking of any kind.) In short, the film is indefensible.
And yet: The sun-saturated sidewalks, the glittering beaches, the Latin rhythms, the flouncy costumes, the sexy dips, Diego Luna...I just can't say I'm sorry I saw it.
It's 1958, and Katey Miller (Romola Garai) is a studious high school senior, loyal to Jane Austen and hell-bent on Radcliffe in the fall. But before she can tidy up her book bag, her father takes a job as a Ford executive in Cuba, and the family is off to a tiny island nation where people really know how to move. Upon arrival, the Millers take up residence at a grand hotel and join an insular community of middle-class Americans living in opulence. At the Oceana, guests are served by impeccable and silent natives forbidden to interact socially with their employers. But Katey's a maverick -- which, in this movie, amounts to having a basic sense of decency. When she accidentally imperils the job of young waiter Javier (Y Tu Mamá También's Luna), she tracks down his boss to try to make amends.
Thus begins the passionate on-again, off-again dance courtship that is Javier and Katey's journey toward undying love. Yes, it is that sappy, but it's actually also sort of sexy, at times. For instance, when Katey next encounters Javier, he is on the street, laughing and dancing amid one of the sidewalk fiestas that were always happening in Cuba in 1958, as revolution neared. And in this dance he is -- well, Javier is stunning. Sure, he looks sixteen: It's all but impossible to imagine this film winning the middle-aged female demographic in quite the way its predecessor did. But he's a very sexy sixteen, a sixteen that can articulate every number on the clock with his pelvis. And Katey is not, shall we say, unmoved.
From there, it's off to La Rosa Negra, the local dance club that sports a roiling mass of grinding Cuban sexuality. Director Guy Ferland gets the music wrong; it's far too contemporary (and sung in English!), so that the scene feels time-warped and unreal, from the land of movies and nowhere else. But the dance transcends the error: It's good stuff, this salsa-meringue-Afro-Cuban salad. It's tangy and alive and exceedingly fun. Also, it's always a pleasure to witness the moment when a young woman begins to awaken to her body, even if Romola Garai isn't quite up to the portrayal.
Garai is an English actress; she comes to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights via the BBC's production of Daniel Deronda and such recent features as Nicholas Nickleby and I Capture the Castle. Perhaps it's her Victorian pedigree that's impeding her performance here, where her body is not quite free enough to express the passion that her character is supposed to feel. No matter how far down Katey's necklines plunge or how wildly her pelvis rotates, her voice remains high in her chest and her dancing, while technically fine, is perennially a few shades short of fire.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is not a sequel to the 1987 film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Instead, it's a "new chapter in a beloved franchise," at least if you believe the press material. Unfortunately, this particular framework didn't stop anyone from recasting Swayze, once more appearing as a hotel dance instructor. Overripe and overgreased, the character is an add-on who interrupts the action and saps the tension from the central romance. Swayze struggles to retain a modicum of dignity as he encourages Katey to inhabit her body and open herself up to being touched, but everybody knows that Javier is her real partner; the electricity is with him, not with an aging peacock whose advertisement promises "all of the latest dances from New York." Hello? We're in Cuba?
Speaking of which, there's a revolution afoot, appearing in the form of Javier's brother (Ren Lavan) and the occasional outburst of bloodless violence. Suffice it to say that the movie handles the politics in the same way it handles everything else: with gross oversimplification.
Finally, there is just not enough sex in this movie. Yeah, Katey and Javier are teenagers: Nobody's asking for Bertolucci. But the two romantic leads, grind against each other though they may, barely get to kiss. Inevitably, as soon as they're nearing a Moment, they veer away or are interrupted. The film is supposed to be about their sexual connection, and the energy between them does occasionally heat up -- but then it fizzles, pfft.
It's a disappointment. And that it is speaks to the fact that there is something redemptive in this movie, something lively and fun. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is silly, misguided, formulaic and largely a piece of trash, but it's not quite a disaster. There's the dancing and the music and the sunlight. And then there's Javier -- he can show me "another side of Cuba" any time he wants.