Passion projects can be great, but love is often blind in filmmaking just as in life.
Consider Andy Garcia, who stars in his own directing debut, “The Lost City,” a tale of his native Cuba he’s longed to tell for almost 20 years.
There was an engaging film to be told in Garcia’s chronicle of a family disintegrating and a vibrant culture fading amid the Cuban revolution. Flashes of that potential appear throughout this drastically overlong drama, but Garcia needed better guiding hands and eyes in the editing room to jettison the many parts that bog the story down.
There are brutal and gut-wrenching scenes as carefree Havana turns from the heartlessness of one government to the oppression of another. There are touching moments of fraternity and conflict as brothers embrace the rebellion or choose to remain neutral. There are tender scenes of love flowering against a backdrop of chaos.
Yet the high points are smothered by long, sloppy scenes of drowsy drama and a wearying parade of energetic but repetitive musical montages that crop up so often, you’d think the revolution was carried out to the beat of a conga line and the clack of castanets.
Written by Cuban novelist and fierce Fidel Castro critic Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who died last year, “The Lost City” is set largely at a lavish, colorful Havana nightclub just before and soon after Castro came to power.
Though the film is not an adaptation of Infante’s novel “Three Trapped Tigers,” an account of the animated nightlife in pre-Castro Cuba, Garcia was inspired by the spirit of the book, the story developing through his discussions with the writer.
Garcia plays Havana club owner Fico Fellove, whose passion for music is balanced by his complete apathy over his country’s tumultuous politics in the late 1950s.
His brothers (Nestor Carbonell and Enrique Murciano) are another matter, clashing with Fico and breaking the hearts of their father (Tomas Milian) and uncle (Richard Bradford) when they take up arms to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista.
The story injects a rather forced romance between Fico and his sister-in-law, played by Ines Sastre, who is radiant but rather bland as a woman gradually indoctrinated into the Castro-Che Guevara new order.
Dustin Hoffman is an engaging though fleeting presence as cordially menacing mobster Meyer Lansky, who tries to strong-arm his way into business partnership at Fico’s club.
Fico is a sympathetic character throughout, yet Garcia’s performance is too even-keeled for all the personal loss and hardship the man undergoes. Unwavering stoicism does not make for great drama. With Garcia rarely deviating from his stone-faced exterior, the audience catches only hints of the turmoil that must be raging within.
As Fico’s strange amigo, a boozy hanger-on known only as the Writer, Bill Murray brings some lively comic moments to a heavy-handed story that definitely needed some lightening up.
Murray’s character floats in and out almost at random and serves no clear purpose other than to give the movie someone who’s not wringing his hands in despair or raising a fist in anger. He comes off almost like Fico’s imaginary friend, a surreal distraction in a diffuse story that already was spinning in too many directions.
Where “The Lost City” shines is in its fabulous re-creation of 1950s Havana. Shot in the Dominican Republic, the film presents a loving sketch of a city bursting with art and merriment, then gradually losing its flavor under the new management of communism.
Along with a score Garcia wrote himself, “The Lost City” features about 40 pieces of classic Cuban music. Garcia notes how he wanted music to be a central element in the film, but as with the jumble of disconnected images and characters, the selections overwhelm through sheer volume.
No song or musical number stands out in the onslaught. Less would have been more had Garcia pared down the barrage of tunes.
The movie’s title is apt: Garcia aimed for a portrait and ended up creating a wall mural, one with so many facets competing for attention that the city simply gets lost.