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‘The Mambo Kings’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1992

"The Mambo Kings" has the joyous spontaneity of a conga line and the provocative promise of a slithering blonde's sashay. A corny, eye-filling concoction of sound and strife, it recalls the heyday of a dance craze with the Technicolor splash of a 1950s musical. Beyond that, it is an emotionally enticing story of two brothers united by their struggling nightclub act, rather like "The Fabulous Baker Boys" with bongos.

Armand Assante takes charge as Cesar Castillo, a Cuban sex machine whose lust for women is equaled only by his love for his more soulful younger brother. Antonio Banderas, a regular in such Pedro Almodovar films as "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," plays Nestor, a homesick, lovesick and wholly reluctant emigre, with the sad demeanor of a caged jungle bird. Cesar, a pushy pianist, promotes the band, while Nestor, a trumpet player, writes the songs.

Both characters are based on those in Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," but Cesar has been pasteurized. Like the womanizing hero of "The Incredible Lightness of Being," he was upgraded from callous swine to suave caballero. Adapted primarily from the linear first half of the book by Cuban-born screenwriter Cynthia Cidre, the scenario is also considerably brighter. In her writing, Cidre finds both humor and innocence in Hijuelos's macho melodrama. When Cesar oils across the floor to hit on lame-encased cigarette girl Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty) there's not a woman in the house who doesn't know why he is a lady's man.

Moriarty, as Cesar's neglected regular girl, was born to be bad, with her contralto growl and Mae Westian curves. "If she cooks like she walks, I'm gonna lick her plate," says Cesar, who benefits mightily from Cidre's wonderful way with words.

Not that Cesar needs to say anything to command the screen, not with those swiveling hips and that matador's stare. Even hunky Nestor's girlfriends swoon like dying swans in Cesar's presence. Naturally this finally gets to Nestor, who still resents Cesar for hustling him out of Havana in 1952. Haunted by Maria, the woman he left behind (lustrous Talisa Soto), Nestor continues to long for the past, a yearning he puts into the Mambo Kings' most famous bolero, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul."

Meatpackers by day, the Castillo brothers and their band quickly win a shot at the big time. But Cesar, a self-destructive sot, spoils their chances for success on the Latin nightclub circuit by antagonizing the money men. Soon they are playing "Hava Nagila" on timbales at bar mitzvahs when they are discovered by Desi Arnaz (Desi Arnaz Jr.). An appearance on the "I Love Lucy" show and an album, "Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," soon follow. Cesar is gushing like a human champagne bottle, but the backward-looking Nestor realizes that it's not at all what he wanted. Now he must hurt either himself or his brother.

The fourth principal in the torrid affair is Delores Fuentes, a scholarly beauty whose ambitions of someday becoming a schoolteacher are blunted by her love for Nestor. Compellingly played by Dutch-born actress Maruschka Detmers, Delores is forever competing with Nestor's unassailable memory of Maria. Detmers, who recalls a sexy June Cleaver, matches the rest of the cast in the proficiency of her accent. The exception is Arnaz, , who sounds more like a talking frijol than his Cuban band leader father.

The film is hopelessly florid as directed by Arne Glimcher, but that is all a part of the movie's Copacabanaesque charms. An aficionado of Latin music and culture, Glimcher approaches the movie with the enthusiasm of a kid whacking away at a birthday pinata. But he is by no means blindfolded in his first outing as a director. The producer of "Gorillas in the Mist" and other films, Glimcher shows an epicure's taste in his choice of both cast and crew. The look of "The Mambo Kings" is doubtless richer than the text, which is, however, strengthened by Glimcher's nostalgia for the teenage, eager America of the '50s. Besides, the music is the thing, the hot silly rococo lyrics (Glimcher wrote some himself) that lead to the kind of dancing that leads to other things. And how can you resist a movie with the song "Guantanamera"?

"The Mambo Kings" is rated R for sensuality.

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