It is hard not to smile at a movie as simple as “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.” The characters are basic, their motivations are clear, the complications are straightforward, and the resolutions are easily arrived at. It’s like a children’s story, but with more rhythmic pelvic thrusting.
Borrowing its title and several plot elements from the cheesy 1987 cult classic, “Havana Nights” is set in Cuba in late 1958, on the very eve of revolution. Blond, wide-eyed Katey (Romola Garai) has been uprooted to Havana — during her senior year, no less! — because her father’s job as an auto-maker bigwig requires him there. There are other American kids living at their hotel, notably James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson), an Aryan posterboy whose WASPish parents have connived with Katey’s WASPish parents to make the two into an upper-class uber-couple.
Katey’s not interested in James, though. She sorta likes Javier (Diego Luna), the bird-faced cabana boy who spends his idle hours dancing Cuban-style in clubs with names like La Rosa Negra. Katey and Javier are an unlikely couple, from two different worlds, but they have something in common: a love for, how you say, the dance.
And so there is a dance contest, and all the WASPs are appalled to discover Katey associating with this local boy, and James is indignant, and there’s a lot of ballyhoo and folderol and what-have-you, all of which is solved with minimal melodrama and not too much bloodshed.
It is set against the backdrop, however unfocused, of the people’s revolution, led by Fidel Castro. Javier’s brother is a revolutionary, and their father died for the cause. If the people win, Cuba has a new beginning and Javier has a reason to stay. If they don’t, Javier would love to win the dance contest and take his family to America with the prize money.
Romola Garai and Diego Luna don’t exactly smolder as a couple, and their romance is depicted so chastely, except for one brief scene, that you generally forget they’re even supposed to be in love. (For a lot of movies, this one included, the only way to show that two people are in love is to have them doin’ it. Take that away, and the filmmakers are stumped.) Garai has an uncommonly flat method of delivering her lines, such that when she began to utter one in particular — “I’m so happy that I could see all this with you” — I honestly believed the character was reciting a poem or a line from Shakespeare, not spontaneously expressing her own feelings.
Patrick Swayze has a cameo as a dance instructor, and it’s alarming to realize he still wears those tight leather pants. (No, I do not believe a costume designer asked him to wear them for the film. I believe he wears them constantly, in his daily life, and has done so since 1987.)
I also feel compelled to mention that one of the Latin-flavored songs heard on the soundtrack includes these lines: “Hey you, Papi/Don’t you stoppy/I wanna see you move your body.”
I said the film was simple, and it is. Some movies’ simplicity feels like a sign of dumbness on the part of their creators, but here it just feels refreshingly unpretentious. When I try to think of how they could have made the film more complex, all the ideas I come up with sound contrived and fake. And maybe when all attempts to add depth to your film fail, that’s when it’s time to abort the project, but oh well. They went ahead anyway, and they have a harmless little movie to show for it.
C+ (1 hr., 26 min.; )