Movie Review: “Mambo Man” tries to surf the hustles of modern Cuba

The old showbiz maxim “Always leave’em begging for more” is pushed beyond its limits in “Mambo Man,” a perfectly charming and utterly predictable Cuban dramedy that is over entirely too soon.

It’s about a Cuban entrepreneur, a pig and tomato farmer and concert promoter, beloved and thriving in his corner of Eastern Cuba, but a man who is out of his depth in the dog-eat-dog New Capitalism sweeping over his island.

JC (Héctor Noas) may gripe about the weather, the government, “The Soviets,” the Chinese and “the gringo trade embargo” (in Spanish with English subtitles). But the 50ish Michael Eisner look-alike is doing OK.

He’s got a nice farm in Bayona, and a very nice house on it where he can keep his wife Rita (Yudexi De La Torre Mesa) and spoil their little girl. He teaches her about “freedom” by buying her a bird a the street market, lecturing her through her tears as he lets the bird go.

JC knows that many with any sort of ambition have already fled the island. But he hosts tourists who visit the farm, does well with his pigs and does well by the many musicians who rely on him for bookings, recording sessions and exposure. The film’s composer, co-writer/director Mo Fini is one of them, appearing as himself, declaring his loyalty.

JC built a life of friends and business relationships built on handshake deals and grew up in a Cuba where you always pick up hitch-hikers, where an engine problem in his ancient Chevy could be solved by that one mechanic in whatever village he and driver David (Alejandro Palomino) often without charge.

Then this “old friend,” Roberto (David Pérez Pérez) with this secret “deal” he wants JC in on. Damned if the hustler isn’t out beating the bushes for cash, from a bank, old friends who owe him a favor — everybody.

His wife weeps. David says “There’s something fishy about it.” And anybody who’s ever seen a movie about a hustler trying to hustle up a big score will tense up, fretting over JC’s trusting ways.

The novelty of “Mambo Man” is the vivid portrait of street life in a changing Cuba. The 50somethings like JC may all seem to know each other — the engineer of the local freight train with his knowing wave, the mechanic who can “fix anything” who eyeballs a busted irrigation pump (jerry rigged with a car motor piston) and says, “It won’t be perfect, but we can get it figured out.”

The magic of “Mambo Man,” performances in clubs and restaurants, concerts and cookouts. Real musicians from the “Buena Vista Social Club” generation sing JC’s praises from the stage.

Rum, cigars, “sugar cane water — natural Viagra” and all this food — mouth watering its way right off the screen — adds to the texture.

Noas (“Sergio & Sergei”), as JC, floats through this world, irked when he’s late but not blowing a fuse, trusting this or that employee or business associate like “my brother,” trading on his good name for the New God of Cuba — cash.

“The Bible says love of money will send us straight to Hell,” he muses. Not that he’s taking the Bible’s advice. Not in today’s Cuba. It’s just that he’s one of the last playing by the old rules.

The parable is simple to the point of simplistic, but Noas makes a most engaging tour guide on this slide down the slippery slope. And the people, places, music and food of Cuba make one long for the day when “the gringo embargo” and travel ban are gone and we can all sample its charms.

Let’s hope the gringos, and the Cubans who emulate them, don’t eat guys like JC for lunch

MPAA Rating: unrated, a little drinking, a little smoking

Cast: Héctor Noas, Yudexi De La Torre Mesa, Alejandro Palomino, David Pérez Pérez and Mo Fini

Credits: Directed by Edesio Alejandro and Mo Fini, script by Mo Fini and Paul Morris. A Corinth Films release.

Running time: 1:23

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