Mambo Kings

1992, R, 104 min. Directed by Arne Glimcher. Starring Armand Assante, Antonio Banderas, Cathy Moriarty, Maruschka Detmers.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 20, 1992

This film adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, tells the story of two Cuban brothers, Cesar (Assante) and Nestor (Banderas) Castillo. The story begins in 1952 as they leave Cuba for New York City to make their fame and fortune as musicians and performers. By night they perform their mambo music in the clubs, by day they perform manual labor in a meat-packing plant. Cesar is a brazen, zestful and seductive devourer of life poised to take his bite of the Big Apple (he's aptly described as regarding himself as the “last Coca-Cola in the desert”). Nestor, the composer of their songs, is a more quiet and sensitive type who pines unrequitedly for Maria, the woman he left behind in Cuba. Just like in Cuba, they find themselves pawns in the club owners' indecipherable power games, though they have their crowning moment of American glory when invited to Hollywood to play Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's hayseed cousins on the I Love Lucy show. (Desi Arnaz, Jr. is fun here impersonating his father, Desi Arnaz, who spots the Mambo Kings performing at Club Babalu.) The movie alters the novel's emphasis on memory and the American Dream and focuses more on the immediate and tangible. In that sense, the movie is most alive during its performance scenes. With musical support from salsa legends Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, sparks fly during the musical numbers. Assante and Banderas are both exciting to watch and the rhythmically choregraphed camerawork is a partner to the merriment. But then the brothers come off the stage and become absorbed with their love stories -- both with each other and with the women in their lives (the usually amazing Moriarty is wasted here as Cesar's understanding girlfriend). Constantly, the movie gives you the feeling of being drastically truncated, with hints of storylines that are never fully played out. None of the drama ever quite matches the dynamism of the musical sequences. As a director, Glimcher is making his debut here, following a career as founder and director of one of New York's premier art galleries, the Pace Gallery and as the producer of Gorillas in the Mist and The Good Mother. Apart from the two lead performances, what's most memorable to me about The Mambo Kings is the incredible camerawork of Michael Ballhaus who is capable of shooting the classic New York skyline in so many different ways that it alternately appears promising, beckoning, mocking and desolate. In its wide-of-the-target attempt to pin down aspects of a specific New York musical/cultural moment and the elusive American Dream, The Mambo Kings would probably make an intriguing double bill with The Cotton Club.

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Mambo Kings, Arne Glimcher, Armand Assante, Antonio Banderas, Cathy Moriarty, Maruschka Detmers

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