Rulers of disparate realms Misdirected 'Mambo Kings' islifeless when the music stops

March 13, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "The Mambo Kings," the beat goes on, but the movie stays put.

It's derived from a Pulitzer-Prize winning (and much more complex) novel by Oscar Hijuelos about two Cuban brothers who hit New York in the mid-50s to try to catch the wave of Latino big band music as exemplified by stars named Desi, Tito and Xavier. And the movie is pure bliss when the mambo is mamboing; but it's pure bumble when the story is bumbling.

The Castillo brothers -- Cesar and Nestor -- have the gift. The younger Nestor writes the songs and plays the trumpet, the older Cesar croons the songs and plays drum and piano; together, beaming fascinating rhythm, white teeth and sexual charisma, they are the showy heart of Cuban music, and kings of the Havana night-life circuit. Then Nestor falls in love with a gangster's gal and gets half his brother's throat cut. The two end up fleeing to Gotham.

The movie means desperately to juxtapose the vibrant music with the passionate doings off the stage, and it tries to invent an emotional subtext for the two as it follows their climb through show biz. Cesar (Armand Assante) is smarter and tougher and somehow more noble; his flaw is his excessive hubris which causes him to reject success exactly at the moment it is offered. By contrast, Nestor (Antonio Banderas, who has starred in several of Pedro Almodovar's films) is more sensitive, more neurotic and more tormented.

But somehow the domestic intrigue never rises above murky banality, as the film swirls through characters of no particular intensity and situations of no particular interest. The director, Arne Glimcher, seems to have no facility for non-theatrical life: the scenes off the bandstand are all flat and dead and the motives driving the characters are never clear.

Now and then the film perks to life with an inspired set piece, the best of them being a visit to Hollywood by the Castillo brothers to appear on "I Love Lucy" after being discovered by Desi Arnaz. Desi is played by his own son, Desi Arnaz Jr., and he has the sleek charm that the old man exhibited, but not quite as much. Still, he so radiates good-natured, self-confidence that he really picks the film up.

Lucy herself never appears as a character, but the filmmakers have cleverly edited together scenes from a classic "Lucy" with the impersonations by Desi Jr., Assante and Banderas filmed in black and white to suggest a coherent appearance. The only problem with this is that it starkly underscores the fact that the writers on the "Lucy" show were much more gifted than poor Cynthia Cidre, who struggles with the screenplay and can't quite bring it off.

Of the two men, Assante is by far the more commanding and it's about time this guy got a shot at a major movie. Silky and passionate, his Cesar is indeed a kingly figure: fiercely proud and masculine, he still steams with love for his younger brother. Banderas' character is more subtly conceived, and perhaps beyond the young actor's reach: he's meant to be sensitive and romantic but also stubborn. Too often, Banderas comes off as merely surly and at one point actually duplicitous.

Of their various lovers, only Marushka Detmers as Nestor's wife Dolores really registers. She's actually in love with the more potent Cesar, but Cesar's nobility cannot allow him to respond; still, this is but one of many potentially interesting dramatic ideas that the movie establishes and then abandons.

Ultimately, it ends things up with that cheapest of all melodramatic devices, the fatal accident at the most propitious moment. "The Mambo Kings" deserved a more royal exit than the film can give them.

'The Mambo Kings'

Starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.

Directed by Arne Glimcher.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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