Friday, April 22, 2011

Cuba (1979)

          It’s hard to decide if Cuba is a great idea executed poorly, or simply a case of terrific execution masking the absence of any central idea whatsoever. In either case, the Richard Lester-directed romantic/political thriller is frustrating, because despite incredible production values and a strong cast, the film is rudderless. When Cuba begins, it seems as if the main story will involve British mercenary Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) getting drawn into the drama of 1959 Cuba, just before rebel forces led by Fidel Castro staged a successful coup. Dapes was hired by the endangered Batista government to train soldiers for their battles against the rebels, and Dapes quickly realizes he’s on the wrong side of history. His situation gets even more complicated when he encounters Alexandra (Brooke Adams), a young woman with whom he once had an intense love affair, and who is now the wife of a playboy Cuban aristocrat (Chris Sarandon).
          The lovers-in-wartime premise is vaguely reminiscent of Casablanca, but unlike that classic film, Cuba can’t decide whether it’s an examination of geopolitics or simply a torrid love triangle. As a result, the movie bounces from one tonal extreme to another, creating a disjointed narrative and neutralizing any real emotional involvement on the part of the audience. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the acting and filmmaking are so consistently good. Lester employs clever grace notes, such as tossed-off dialogue by peripheral characters and fussy background action, in order to generate a palpable sense of place and texture. He also works in his trademark sight gags, usually at the expense of pudgy character actor Jack Weston, who plays a crass American developer trying to score a big deal before Cuba implodes.
          Supporting player Hector Elizondo is terrific in a more serious role, as Dapes’ military handler; Elizondo’s knowing glances and sly asides communicate volumes of worldly cynicism. Denholm Elliot, Lonette McKee, and Chris Sarandon are equally effective in less nuanced roles. As for the leads, Adams looks spectacular throughout the picture, even if her character is written in such a confusing way that Adams is precluded from portraying consistent behavior. Connery pours on the manly-man charm, and he’s actually quite effective in his scenes with Adams, displaying more sensitivity than he usually integrates into his performances, but the story weirdly sidelines his character until the climax.
          Still, even with these catastrophic flaws, Cuba has indisputable virtues. The location photography by David Watkin is vivid, and the script by frequent Lester collaborator Charles Wood is witty. One typically tart dialogue exchange occurs between Weston and a prostitute. Weston: “Don’t you Cubans know that time is money?” Prostitute: “I do.”


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