Courtesy of our government’s hesitancy to repatriate people to a communist nation, Cubans in this country enjoy an unrivaled sense of freedom. It’s some kind of irony that, say, impoverished Mexicans who come into the U.S. are forced into hiding and chased by the same organizations that boost and romanticize the Cuban émigré experience (the fancy-sounding wet-foot, dry-foot policy dictates that balseros who reach American shores are given automatic political asylum). This is a privilege we may deserve but its one that some Cubans, from personal experience, either flaunt or take for granted. Because we don’t have to worry about being exported, and perhaps because the majority of us are white, economic opportunities are made available to us that other immigrants never see. This explains to a certain extent why we overwhelmingly align ourselves with the party of George W. Bush. Republicans protect our money, and 30 years of personal experience has been instructive: Lucky, aging Cubans who have made a success of themselves in this country and whose contempt for Democrats is still grudgingly and irrationally rooted in Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, have learned to regard their money as fondly as their patria. Blame Miami Cubans then—not butterfly ballots—for Dubya’s 2000 presidential election. The President’s “thank you” to us? An inhumane policy that makes it harder for us to visit the families we’ve left behind in Cuba.
This social science lesson is not without purpose—it’s crucial if you wish to understand the passion and pride of the Cuban and grapple with the remarkable specificity and insults of Garcia’s The Lost City, a trite right-wing anthem to Cuba that probably has Che Guevara spinning in his grave. Garcia came to this country in the early ’60s, too young to really have understood the volatile politics that drove his family away from their place of origin. He shares with nearly every other Cuban from his generation a beaming sense of virtue, a burning need to return to his homeland, and an incendiary contempt for Castro. The acclaim the displaced Garcia has achieved is what finances this film, which he presents to the Cuban community as something we should all be happy to see (a Godfather to call our own), but his esteem does not excuse the film’s aesthetic mediocrity, cultural blindness, and colossal self-absorption. If Garcia’s youth in Miami was filled with stories of how his family lost their money when Castro came to power, this would explain why Lost City unravels as a totem to lost wealth, a manifesto that will likely appeal only to those Cubans whose bank accounts were splintered after the revolution, or those who’ve managed to make a fortune in the United States.
A terrible sequence toward the beginning of the film is meant to establish the pressure-cooker state of Cuba’s political climate during the tail-end of Fulgencio Batista’s de facto regime, but all it does is murk things up. A University of Havana professor (Tomas Milian) discusses politics with his sons, nightclub owner Fico (Garcia) and revolutionary firebrands Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) and Luis (Nestor Carbonell). Anyone who’s ever had the unique pleasure of watching a roomful of Cubans discuss politics might appreciate the scene’s “passion” and “color”—a vulgar show of arrogance, domination, and faux acquiescence. I imagine the brooding attitude and sing-songy explosiveness these characters exhibit wasn’t too difficult to summon given that most of Garcia’s actors are themselves Cuban (the only big-wig who doesn’t get to sit on Garcia’s very considerate casting couch is Maria Conchita Alonso), but the problem is that Garcia is so fixated on nailing the way his characters move and speak that he forgets to give meaning to their discourse. He concocts a cozy little political diatribe to pit a family against itself but doesn’t clarify exactly why one brother (and another, in secret) gravitates toward Fidel (Gonzalo Menendez) and Che (Jsu Garcia) while the other decides to stay loyal to the conventions of his bourgeois order.
Garcia is a bad director, a good actor, and an excellent businessman. It’s pathological but fitting that Lost City often becomes less about Fico and his Cuba than it does about Bill Murray, who stars as a comedian who asks to work at the Ricky Ricardo-type’s nightclub. He doesn’t get the job but hangs around nonetheless, spitting out funnies from Fico’s side like some wind-up toy. Dustin Hoffman also appears as a cute gangster whose pants come up to his armpits and who offers Fico a job when he migrates to America. These dancing monkeys work as proxies for members of the Jeffrey Lyons set, who can watch Murray and Hoffman and feel as if they’re personally interacting with the Cuban experience. This is the side effect of Garcia’s ambition, which dictates that interjecting recognizable white actors into his story, even if it’s at the expense of their characters sticking out like sore thumbs, will guarantee his film a distribution deal. Garcia allows himself to fall victim to the demands of the Hollywood system and then asks us to buy a story about a man who refuses to kowtow to Fidel Castro. The hypocrisy is blinding.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and Garcia uses his present-day know-how to condescend to his characters. Fico’s every interaction with his brothers and, later, Luis’s wife Aurore (Spanish supermodel Inés Sastre) is laced with pompous derision. After Luis’s death, Aurore becomes Fico’s girlfriend and, later, the “Widow of the Revolution”—hyperbole neatly torn apart by Murray’s funnyman. Politics, again, threatens to tear the family apart. Before leaving for the United States, Fico says goodbye to his father and mother and the cloying signs of their Cuban tradition, chief of which is a cute autocratic number the old man puts on that dictates no one is allowed to sit at his dinner table a minute after six o’clock. I suppose this is meant to summarize how good Cubanos are at meeting deadlines or punching timecards, which might explain why Fico stares Aurore down before leaving and begs her to come with him. Ominously he says, “Before it’s too late.” His voice trails off and the Cubans in the crowd who know how it all turned out are invited to cluck their tongues and imagine the next 40-plus years of her pitiful life should she decide to stay behind.
Garcia paints Cuba with hoary clichés, starting the film with the image of some trumpeter blowing his Afro-Cuban song under some ungodly atmospheric building. Certain Cuban signifiers are casually pinpointed—cups of espresso, a roasted pig, a box of cigars, and a plateful of tostones—but never really worked into the fiber of the film in a particularly elegant or meaningful fashion (see Bitter Sugar for that). More brashly, Garcia returns over and over again to the same shot of water crashing onto the walls of some Santo Domingo location that means to stand in pictorially for the off-limit Havana’s ocean-side walls. Far worse are seemingly inconsequential things like the opening credits, which are typewritten and succeed only in confirming this niggling notion that the whole film is the rambling product of some boozer pounding out exotic melodrama from the confines of a grungy hotel room located somewhere on Miami Beach. And then there are the incessant cutaways to the hip-swiveling rumbas let loose on the stage of Fico’s nightclub, which Garcia falls back on whenever he feels the story is dragging. (Fans of the film will no doubt think I was dancing while writing this review.)
Garcia has a TV director’s eye for composition that turns perverse during the film’s revolution scenes, which he shoots from crass, meaningless angles. In spite of the overblown color palette, the film’s patina is uncomplicated, much like its cartoon politics. Personal opinions about family and country are exchanged like slogans (“Everything I do I do it for my family” and “There’s no happiness outside the revolution”), though it’s somewhat stirring to try and figure out where Garcia’s priorities lie for the film’s first hour. He doesn’t side with Batista (Juan Fernández), though the fascist’s sour-lipped villainy (his political portrait has more dimensions than he does) may be a bone the director tosses at the liberal Cuban contingency (“Viva Garcia!”), nor does he side with Fidel or Che—the latter lectures the former about revolution like a cocky older brother instructing a prepubescent sibling. (In one scene, Garcia concocts a “brave” little scene for himself where he gets to throw a plastic champagne glass at every teenage revolutionary’s favorite false idol.)
So, who does Garcia’s Fico believe in? You get a sense Fico couldn’t care less who ruled Cuba as long as his wealth is preserved. Once Fidel takes power, the dictator’s cronies (led by a gung-ho Elizabeth Peña) begin to strangulate Fico’s privilege, confiscating in one scene the club’s saxophone under the condition that it is “the instrument of the imperialists.” Fascism is an absurd thing, and while these are words that might spill out of a Castro henchman’s mouth, Garcia passes judgment on his characters in such a way that his shrill mockery succeeds not in illuminating a complex, transitional period in Cuban politics but in creating a noisy little halo of bursting action and comedic incident around Fico’s well-groomed head. Garcia’s obvious contempt for Castro, Che, and Batista is certainly appreciated, but his dangerous reductivism and blind eye is not. Watching the film, you’d think all of Cuba was living in the lap of luxury before Castro came along. So as not to compromise Fico’s fantasy vision of an insular, autonomous realm, someplace between Batista’s despotism and Castro’s fascism, Garcia chooses to misrepresent the social climate of Cuba. It’s easy to imagine hordes of poor, black Cubans trying to break through the pearly gates of this Lost City, which has the gloss of a non-inclusive commemorative stamp.