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. In short, it's 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 who are 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 also actually 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 16: 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 16 -- a 16 that can articulate every number on the clock with his pelvis.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is not a sequel to the 1987 film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Unfortunately, this didn't stop anyone from recasting Swayze, once more appearing as a hotel dance instructor. He 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 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.