Wholesome blond Katey Miller (Romola Garai) has just arrived in Havana and she’s feeling out of place. “Here’s what I know about Cuba: high school Spanish wasn’t going to help me,” she adds, “Nobody cares what you do here.” Her dad Bert (John Slattery) is a Chrysler executive, her mother, Jeannie (Sela Ward), is a prim, tennis-playing society matron, hoping her eldest daughter will take up with well-coiffed prep-schooler and executive-to-be James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson).
The chances of this coupling are actually good in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, as the white folks in Batista’s Cuba tend to stick together — at the alarmingly upscale Oceana Hotel — making small talk with each other and money off the local government. Katey, being a smart, curious, and moral sort, actually has other ideas, and is less invested in fitting in than her little sister Susie (Mika Boorem). Sitting poolside with the other Yanquis, Susie giggles appreciatively, if unintelligently, at snotty joking by diva-girls Eve (January Jones) and Polly (Polly Cusumano). Competitive for her own good reasons, she goes so far as to laugh along when the snooty girls ridicule Katey’s outfit: “My god, June Cleaver is in Havana.” While the other girls show off their colorful one-pieces and styley sunglasses, Katie slouches in her cute cardigan, book in hand.
And then Katey finds her cause, when Eve sneers, “Stupid spic.” Javier (Diego Luna, perhaps best known as one of the exquisite boys in Y Tu Mamá También) has seen it all before, and so he takes it mostly in stride, even when his boss blames him and docks his meager pay. Katey, by contrast, is shocked, and tries to make it up to Javier by taking the blame herself for a spilled drink. She’s surprised again when Javier rejects her offer to “help.” Suddenly, she’s aware of a perspective other than hers and other Americans’.
The two meet again the next day, as Katey is conveniently lost on her way to school and comes upon Javier dancing in the street, all swivelly hips and nimble leaps. (These sorts of geographic coincidences recur throughout Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, to the point that the kids appear able to walk across town in a matter of minutes.) Katey has her own dance background, her parents being erstwhile ballroom champions and her own moves the result, in part, of pleasing daddy.
Katey’s appreciation of Javier’s beauty — her gaze at him — marks the start of a beautiful romance, as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights goes on to follow the trajectory of the 1987 first version of the film. Katey and Javier decide to enter a dance contest at the Palace, but must practice on the sly, as her folks would be horrified that she’s spending time with an underclass Cuban boy. Jeannie is especially prone to expecting and controlling; resentful that she gave up her career to raise her daughters, she’s fierce when it comes to protecting them and orchestrating their futures (the “brain” Katey’s destined for Radcliffe): her sacrifice had to be for something, right?
For his part, Javier is supposed to be working, as he supports his family while his brother Carlos (René Lavan) focuses his energies on the coming revolution. This distinction between the brothers is simplistic, much like most every emotional and cultural element in the film. As it adjusts the original’s class-ethnic politics to class-race-national politics, Havana Nights relegates the world-altering backdrop of the revolution as background for the impossible love story.
By the time the kids are dancing at the competition, to a tune performed by Lola Martinez (the singer Mya Harrison, taking her next step toward movie stardom, following her few minutes dancing in Chicago), their routine is phenomenally polished, as such events tend to occur in the films about girls and boys sublimating their sexual desire in sinuous, nonpornographic choreography. Even as their performance shocks Katey’s parents, the film here achieves its payoff: Katey and Javier delight in each other and their own newfound grace, suddenly mature in form if not precisely in longing. It lasts about a minute: “history,” or rather, Havana Nights‘ strained version of it, intervenes.
It’s hardly ever a good idea to remake a beloved movie. Still, the rationale here appears to be that the new incarnation adheres to the life story of its choreographer, Joann Jansen, whose own youthful romance did take place in 1959 Cuba. Currently completing a book based her experience, she recalls for the New York Times (22 February 2004) how she came to know her lover through dancing. This, she says, is what dancing is all about, and the film underlines it by having Katey and Javier practice against a wall on which is projected an 8mm film her parents, gloriously in love, moving in tandem, wholly in sync.
Jansen trained non-dancers Garai and Luna to perform such exchange and intimacy for this film, and she’s partly successful. But Garai is not Jennifer Grey (though she possesses her own charms) and Luna is most definitely not Patrick Swayze. Oddly, this awkwardness ends up being more okay than it might have been, because the real Patrick Swayze does show up for a couple of scenes, as the dashing Johnny Castle, Katey’s dance instructor at the Oceana. He’s surely older, his face tighter and hair thinner. But he can still dance like nobody’s business, and his hip swiveling — athletic, precise — is still thrilling.