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WHAT A SELF-important, gaseous bore "Havana" turns out to be.
Those in the habit of sniffing out turkeys long before the cranberry sauce hits the table might have guessed something was wrong when the marketing process included an hour-long network encomium to the long and fruitful film collaboration of Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack -- narrated by Dick Cavett. Along the symbolism trail, that's the equivalent of stuffing already in the oven and someone making gravy on top of the stove.

Who could possibly blame Redford and Pollack for trying to concoct a "Casablanca" for the '90s? Why should the romantic and political chemistry of everyone's all-time favorite movie-movie be forever preserved in a time capsule with Nazi villains, the sound of the "Marseillaise" and the desperate refugees of World War II?

And who could blame Redford for wanting a part full of mileage and danger -- a part with facial wrinkles, a tattooed forearm, and a head full of worldly cynicism and know-how. You know what I mean -- the kind of part where he could exude dangerous pheromones and serve as the filling of a carnal sandwich bounded by two American turistas who came to Havana because they wanted to do a little bit of everything. (Yes, it's an actual scene in the movie).

Who could blame the fellow for wanting a relief from his 15-year stretch as American cinema's reigning goody-two-shoes?

But just about everything went wrong. For one thing, there is the film's rotten political timing. It has been in the works so long that its political setting -- Batista's Cuba on the eve of the triumph of Fidel Castro and the Fidelistas -- has been entirely superseded by international events. In 1991, communism has been smashed into a pulp and Fidel is one of the last of the communist world's stiff-necked hard-liners. A world leader who once seemed the Third World's symbol of progressivism has become everyone else's symbol of retrogression, inflexibility and Third World totemism.

In the political context of 1991, "Havana" looks a bit like an antebellum drama in which an off-screen Jefferson Davis is the hero.

Even then, they could have carried it off. Heaven knows Redford is a good enough actor and Pollack a good enough director ("Tootsie," "Out of Africa," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?").

But, at this stage of the collaboration, there is something gravely wrong with their relationship. Their friendship is way too close. There isn't room anymore for objectivity. This is the second time in a row that Pollack has crossed his old friend up. Pollack has admitted that it was he who told Redford not to use a British accent in "Out of Africa," because he wanted to preserve the image of Redford the Star (Redford the Actor be damned).

So let them ski together, schmooze together, drink together, buy yogurt factories together, and baby-sit for each other's grandchildren. As long as they don't make any more movies together for a while.

"Havana" might have worked with another director -- a director who wasn't a friend, one who would have angered and inflamed the stolid and often phlegmatic Redford or at least made him nervous and inspired him.

In fact, if I were Redford after this orotund and tedious solemnity, I'd race into the arms of the first vulgar and outlandish comedy director who would spend a whole movie making fun of my WASP rectitude and machismo. I wonder if Mel Brooks is busy. (In every man's life, there may come a time when the clever thing to do is make an ass of yourself and start over. Call it the Frank Capra strategy.)

The movie is so long and so turgid -- and Redford is so ill-suited at conveying a kind of Bogartian danger -- that it's close to a total bust. Only the extraordinary Lena Olin escapes with her dignity completely intact.

Redford plays a gambler named Jack Weil (Jack Wild, get it?) who comes back to Cuba to scare up some major poker action just when everyone else wants a violent revolution. In the middle of this wretchedly written hugger-mugger, he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman on the ferry (Olin) and gets involved in a little military equipment smuggling.

It turns out that she's married and her husband is a honcho among the Fidelistas. At this point, any resemblance to "Casablanca's" Rick and Elsa is clearly intentional. The woman's husband is played by Raul Julia, who is, in fact, a marginal improvement over "Casablanca's" Paul Henreid. (Henreid, said one critic famously, looks as if his idea of a good time is to find a nice quiet grave and sit in it.)

In between bouts where he entertains some visiting floozies, Jack makes moves on the mysterious revolutionary. "I can be suave," he says. "But I figure you already know a lot of suave guys. How many crude guys do you know?"

He's the kind of poker player who always attracts action. He's convinced, "This is the time for me. This is the city."

Yes and no. He finds love and nobility, not money.

It would be invidious to compare any movie to "Casablanca" if this weren't clearly the salsa and guacamole version of it. Compared to Michael Curtiz (a director who knew how to keep a movie moving), Pollack works at a snail's pace. And compared to Bogart (an actor who looked and acted as if he knew how to do a lot of unsavory things), Redford seems about as tough and worldly as Lassie.

Sex and torture make for a pungent modern updating of the story. And director Mark Rydell -- in a very brief role -- brings some manic life into it. But it's stuffed with protracted undramatic scenes and clumsy thesis lines about "the things that happen before ideas." After a while, the anti-climaxes pile up with almost cubist complexity.

Instead of watching this, rent "Casablanca" and, for their striking Cuban scenes, Coppola's "The Godfather, Part II" and Richard Lester's little-seen but brilliant 1979 movie "Cuba."

Those are worth seeing.

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